The Land Where We Invisibly Rule: They Might Be Giants’ Glean

They Might Be Giants' Glean

Man, you never lost your edge.

— They Might Be Giants, “All the Lazy Boyfriends,” Glean (2015)

They Might Be Giants‘ Glean — due out April 21 — is the band’s best record since its 1986 eponymous debut, affectionately known as The Pink Album (due to its pink cover). Like that record, it has a range of musical styles, unusual subject matter, and the unexpected lyrical turns that make a They Might Be Giants song a They Might Be Giants song. It’s even similar in length: the debut offered 38 minutes and 31 seconds of music; the new record provides 39 minutes and 1 second.

Spend some time reflecting.

— They Might Be Giants, “It’s Good to Be Alive,” Glean (2015)

That said, perhaps it feels like a classic because all but three of the songs are familiar. Only “All the Lazy Boyfriends,” “Aaa,” and the instrumental title track had not previously been released through their weekly Dial-a-Song.  Much to the delight of fans (me!), the band re-launched this service in January, which from 1983 until 2006 ran off John Flansburgh’s Brooklyn answering machine. (In 2006, the answering machine finally gave up the ghost.) The new web-based version shares not demos — as the original iteration did — but finished songs, complete with videos. Those of us (me, again!) who subscribed to They Might Be Giants’ 2015 Instant Fan Club have also been able to download these songs each week, and (on some weeks) bonus tracks as well.  So, prior to listening to Glean for the first time, I had — according to my iTunes playlist — already heard “Good to Be Alive” (released March 10) and “Answer” (Feb. 17) fourteen times each.  I’d listened to “Erase” (Jan. 6), “Music Jail, Pt. 1 & 2” (Jan. 26), “I Can Help the Next in Line” (Mar. 3), “Madam, I Challenge You to a Duel” (Jan. 13), and “Hate the Villanelle” (Feb. 3) ten times each. By offering bonus tracks as well, They Might Be Giants has even been providing the b-sides to the singles.  So, one reason Glean arrives with this classic vibe is that I’ve been listening to most of its songs and b-sides for the past three and a half months.

I can help the next in line.

Do we have a problem here?

— They Might Be Giants, “I Can Help The Next in Line,” Glean (2015)

But, to puncture holes in the “familiarity” argument I’ve been advancing, I’ve been listening to these songs a lot because they’re really good songs.  The reason I know these songs well is because John Linnell and John Flansburgh are — astonishingly, thirty years later — still making great records. One of these is a catchy number about customer service, beginning with typical customer-is-always-right lingo (“I can help the next in line. / Have you been with us before?”), but quickly escalating into a confrontation (“I don’t think I like your tone”) and the threat of violence (“Put your hands where I can see them”).  They’re still following their respective muses, pursuing unusual ideas. Who else writes a song that is a villanelle about writing a villanelle?  First of all, a villanelle is hard to write. It’s a highly structured, complex poetic form that, as the Poetry Foundation’s website says, consists “of five three-line stanzas and a final quatrain, with the first and third lines of the first stanza repeating alternately in the following stanzas.” Second, they’ve not just written a villanelle.  They’ve written a meta-villanelle, documenting some of the challenges of writing one of these. Third, they’ve set the entire thing to music. Brilliant!

It might seem like a thankless existence

But don’t lose hope just yet.

You’ll be remembered for your persistence

And this is the thanks you get.

— They Might Be Giants, “Answer,” Glean (2015)

The persistence of creative intelligent people amidst rising oceans of despair gives me hope.  That Flansburgh and Linnell, Toni Morrison, Neil Gaiman, Sleater-Kinney, Tim Egan, Kadir Nelson, Frank Turner, Jeanne Birdsall, Jaqueline Woodson, Lane Smith and so many others continue to make good art improves the quality of my life. I especially enjoy the optimistic ambivalence — or would that be ambivalent optimism? — of They Might Be Giants’ approach.  On the band’s first record, “Don’t Let’s Start” advised us, “Everybody dies frustrated and sad, / And that is beautiful.”  On this one, “Answer” offers a midtempo but cheery response to disappointment: “It may take an ocean of whiskey and time / To wash all of the letdown out of your mind / And I may not be the one you expected but I / Am the answer to all your prayers.”  That’s it exactly.  To quote one of my favorite Leonard Cohen songs, “There is a crack in everything. / That’s how the light gets in.” There’s plenty of light in Glean, light through which the band filters absurdities, melancholia, poetic challenges, customer-service fiascos, and… is “Erase” about cognitive decline or the creative process? Or, perhaps, all of the above?

Glean is already one of my favorite records of 2015. Check it out. And whether or not you’ve subscribed to the Fan Club, you can hear new They Might Be Giants videos each Tuesday this year. Check those out, too. They’ll remind you why (to quote another Glean song) “It’s good to be alive.”  It is.

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