“There have been some really stellar 16th albums”, John Flansburgh remarked in an interview two years ago. They Might be Giants have always been known as a prolific group, but lately it’s been the elephant in the room when talking about them. Being in their fourth decade of existence doesn’t necessarily put them in rare company, but remaining active the entire time certainly does. It’s not just that they’ve come out with such a high number of albums (Glean is their 17th album; their 18th, Why?, is due out at the end of the year), but rather the number of songs they’ve written: 807, according to TMBW (most likely higher by the time you read this), or as many as 1606, if you’re counting absolutely everything. It’s enough to make you wonder if they’ve written more songs than any band in history, or if they’re on track to, when all is said and done.
It’s not like they’re slowing down – in 2015, they’ve committed to release a new song every week for their Dial-a-Song project. While most artists their age devolve into playing “greatest hits” type sets for steady paychecks (or have since long ago), with new material both infrequent and inessential, They Might be Giants feel as creative and vital as ever. Since 2007’s The Else they’ve secretly been on a tear, a welcome development from a band whose fanbase has prematurely left for dead on several occasions. For the record I don’t think TMBG have made an out-and-out bad album, but much of the time I’ve been a fan there’s been a sense that the cat was out of the bag, and that the elements that made their early work so special simply couldn’t be recaptured.
Lately I’ve relistened to everything TMBG, and I do mean everything, including the kids stuff, the rare live albums, esoteric releases like They Might be Giants vs. McSweeneys, and all twelve months of TMBG Unlimited. I love to do this in anticipation of a new album, though all the songs on Glean were previously released on the Dial-a-Song service, so no surprises there. Mostly it was because I’d been following this band since I was 12, when their latest disc was Severe Tire Damage, and I figured it was time for a fresh perspective. I mean, so many of their albums don’t really get a fair shake for one reason or another. Everything they do gets stacked against their first four albums, and worthwhile, one-off projects like Venue Songs tend to get dismissed offhand. They were really great up to Factory Showroom at least, but even relative duds like Long Tall Weekend and The Spine have their share of good tunes. Their kids albums wound up alienating their fanbase, though I’ve always maintained (as many others have) that they’re not that far off from what the band used to do. I’ve grown to appreciate them a lot more now that I’m a father and half the things in my house start singing whenever you bump into them; I love how much effort the band put into them, rejuvenating them both commercially and creatively.
Still, it’s fair to say that TMBG’s career has been in overtime for quite some time now, which makes recent efforts like The Else, Join Us, and Nanobots more impressive; they are at a career point where bands tend to sound like older versions of themselves in a way that’s more likely to just remind you of how great the band used to be. The Johns don’t sound like they’re in their twenties anymore, but there’s something about this music that still works. They’ve still got the hooks, the willingness to throw curveballs, and the ability to flip genres around. But more than anything TMBG have always been about the mutated pop song, one which would be straightforward if not for something; an unexpected start/stop, a chord that seems out of place, verses with way too many words in them, or whatever else it is. In a way, those are the hooks, the thing that makes TMBG more than just another band doing short snappy rock songs.
Well, Glean is more of that, and I’m not sure there’s much more to say about it. But I will anyway. Fifteen songs, some of which are very catchy, all of which are brief, often playing their cards early and getting out of the way. I mean, even the ambitiously titled “Music Jail, Pt.1 & 2” is barely over three minutes, even with the big shift in the middle. What tends to happen with an album like this is that you listen to it a couple times, become obsessed with one or two of the songs, but think “it’s short and I liked most of it, I might as well listen to the whole thing”. And then a different song gets lodged in your brain, rinse and repeat. This is what leads one to listen to the disc six times in the span of a week, not that I’m counting (but iTunes is). All the best TMBG albums work this way, especially when you add in the lyrics, which as great as always (“You wanted tall/I came in under 5′ 4″/Then you asked for dark/I tend to sunburn a lot/As for handsome, well/Can’t help you there/So make of it what you will”, Linnell sings on “Answer”).
Thus it’s kind of useless to name highlights, since they tend to change often. But Linnell’s “Erase” is the most obvious one, the sort of clipped-guitar power pop showcase that’s cut from the same cloth as “Ana Ng” (TMBW currently ranks it #5, below only “Birdhouse in Your Soul”, “Ana Ng”, “She’s an Angel”, and “Don’t Let’s Start”). Though “Unpronounceable” is nearly as good (Current Rank: #20), and “End of the Rope” gets my personal record for “most times listened to in a row” (4). Flansburgh has some great ones too – “All the Lazy Boyfriends” is a great anthem, and he’s getting better at his old-timey jazz guise (“Music Jail”, “Let Me Tell You About My Operator”). The only songs that don’t really stick are the ones that seem unfinished – “I Can Help the Next in Line” and “Hate the Villianelle” sound like an orphan line expanded into a half-song; though charming in their own ways much, like “Chess Piece Face” or “Shoehorn with Teeth” were way back in the day. Funniest lyrics: “Aaa”, about a man’s curiosity constantly getting the best of him (“How’s it going baby tell me is there anything on your mind/Aaaaah!! Aaaaah!!!”).