They Might Be Giants: I Like Fun (Lojinx)

Thirty-five years in and still going strong, the Brooklyn stalwarts add a solid twentieth entry into their ledger

Released Jan 19th, 2018 via lojinx / By Erick Mertz
They Might Be Giants: I Like Fun (Lojinx) One could almost forgive plaudits when they gush over They Might Be Giants and their so-called excesses. A dense catalogue (like twenty albums dense) blending deftly crafted silliness, astute observation and glib fetish for academics has defined three decades of genre bending rock. No one does what the two Johns do, period, creating a house-pleasing sound that bridges all generations. But, if you peel these layers back, excess isn’t really what makes TMBG tick. When you skim off the sweet layer of originality and quirk, Brooklyn’s Ambassadors of Love have endured the test of time because they write solid, catchy songs on par with any pop-craftsman, contemporary or historical.

On I Like Fun’s opening track, Let’s Get This Over With the band lampoons a familiar topic, work-a-day life and joyless clock punching. From any other band that might feel like a sore subject, but as always, TMBG brings an air of charm to the toughest subjects. The opener is an up tempo piano number, sung in John Linnell’s playful, wise-cracking tone. An equal object of TMBG’s scorn, social expectations and norms, All Time What opens on the line, 'I use my outside voice/because I had no choice' a song that breaks into a goofy rocker. Ultimately, it’s about things falling apart between two people, but I’ll be damned if it isn’t the kind of track you can sing along to, loud enough for anyone to hear.

The years have transformed TMBG (by all accounts) into a more conventional band. They don’t write riff track or one-offs anymore. You won’t find Apollo 18’s Fingertips series, The Day or Minimum Wage on I Like Fun. Instead they tend to give their song ideas more room to develop and breath. Consider a song like Lake Monsters. On another TMBG album it might be spare, broken into a couple of memorable, bittersweet ditties. Here the idea is fully fleshed, becoming a somber meditation about monsters and geography that ends on a hilarious refrain about mass hypnosis.

The band’s chemistry continues to show through strong on I Like Fun, every song a carefully crafted blend of their styles, reflecting Flansburgh’s guitar-based rocker aesthetic and Linnell’s artsy, almost egghead sensibility. The band used to feel more fractured, songs belonging to one or the other. The title track is odd (and maybe my favourite on the album) layering warbling woodwind sounds over an existential meditation on the clock in a pharmacy where the subject awaits his prescriptions. Rather than stay there though, it eventually breaks down into a single military drum, a bugle and a further descent into the seemingly arbitrary of collection of actions that make up any relationship. It’s an all-time TMBG track, something fans could show the squares with no fear of rebuke.

Because I Like Fun is TMBG’s twentieth full-length record, it’s difficult not to place it in the context of their catalogue. While their early esoteric work was by all definitions, highly experimental, their middle work (beginning with John Henry) became more rock focused, and this album certainly falls into the latter category. Anyone who pines for the band to go back to that era, they’re likely not headed there again. There is a voice in the fan community that feel the later albums are more workmanlike, lacking verve, and it’s certainly worth indulging that idea. They’ve aged. Some might say they’ve calmed from pioneer days. They’re leaning on Dial-A-Song marketing, their connection to their children’s music.

Well, forget all that. While this isn’t going to please those who want the Halcyon days of their first four records, this is one of TMBG’s better late catalog albums. Songs are solid. They’ll keep you singing. They just might not freak out your boss like the old stuff. Don’t worry about that though, you probably need the job.