Monday, November 14, 2011

Everything Right Is Wrong Again

They Might Be Giants

Anyone listening to They Might Be Giants' self-titled debut album without any knowledge of the duo's later career may have been justified in the belief that there was no way in hell these guys should ever have been allowed to make a second album. To say that They Might Be Giants is a weird album is an understatement considering how often the word "weird" is abused and misused: there's something downright scary about this album in a way that can't entirely be dismissed by recourse to ironic distance. For all the chirpy energy and mutant power pop songwriting chops on display, this isn't even remotely happy music. These are murder ballads disguised as bubblegum synthpop, telegrams of self-loathing broadcast from the interior of a strange subterranean prison. If this juxtaposition does not perhaps seem quite as strange now as it did in 1986, it is to They Might Be Giants' credit that they have effectively created this subgenre unto themselves.

I am consistently surprised by Robert Christgau's longstanding affection for TMBG: to put it mildly, they don't particularly seem like his type of thing. And yet love them he does. He's actually more kind to their debut album than I am inclined to be:
Two catchy weirdos, eighteen songs, and the hits just keep on coming in an exuberantly annoying show of creative superabundance. Their secret is that as unmediated pop postmodernists they can be themselves stealing from anywhere, modulating without strain or personal commitment from hick to nut to nerd. Like the cross-eyed bear in the regretful but not altogether kind "Hide Away Folk Family," their "shoes are laced with irony," but that doesn't doom them to art-school cleverness or never meaning what they say. Their great subject is the information overload that lends these songs their form. They live in a world where "Everything Right Is Wrong Again" and "Youth Culture Killed My Dog."
Where I think Christgau gets it precisely right is the statement that "their great subject is the information overload that lends these songs their form." At a certain point, after having listened to this album enough times, the sheer profusion of different styles and attitudes threatens to overwhelm the understanding or enjoyment of any individual song. Track for track, this is one of the weakest albums from their early period. But taken as a whole the confusing multiplicity of styles and genres - to say nothing of the anomalous un-musicality of truly bizarre tracks like "Chess Piece Face" and "Boat of Car" - makes the album seem better as a composite whole than as the sum of its parts. Like Marshall McLuhan, They Might Be Giants (unintentionally) foresaw the negative consequences of information overload in a fractured and infinitely refracted society. You're not supposed to be able to focus on any one object: the best way is simply to absorb everything all at once and hope for the best.

The difference between They Might Be Giants and a group like Negativland, however, comes from the Johns' steadfast removal to engage with the world beyond their own horizons. There aren't many overtly political songs in the band's discography; one of them, the weak "Put Your Hand Inside The Puppet Head," is the second song here. They seem more or less constitutionally unable to discuss politics with conviction. (One of the better songs on their next album, "Purple Toupee," addresses this problem in explicit terms.) So immediately we're trapped within the confines of a narrow, hermetically-sealed universe populated by strange characters defined by varying degrees of depression and psychosis. I believe this was actually a brilliant decision on their part: as opposed to someone like "Weird Al" who has alway been tied to explicit parody as his primary subject matter, TMBG don't really engage with the outside world. Devo by their very nature were extremely political: they were (and are, since they're amazingly still a going concern) persistently hyper-critical of contemporary life. They Might Be Giants are certainly persistently critical and overtly parodic, but not of society or or pop culture or other musicians. Their metier, the inescapable target of their relentless criticism, is themselves. There's a reason why mind control, hypnosis, and delusion are the most consistent subject matters in their oeuvre: nothing makes sense for these guys outside the realm of their own heads. For better or for worse, They Might Be Giants are extremely narcissistic songwriters. That does however not mean that they aren't at all times completely willing to abase or humiliate themselves.

To put it another way: They Might Be Giants became successful because they created their own world, and each album was an exercise in fantasy world-building that differed from the likes of Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd not in kind but in quality. This wasn't about power fantasy, this was about routine powerlessness inflated to ritual proportions. The trials and tribulations of everyday banality were reflected and distorted to funhouse-mirror proportions: take another look at "Absolutely Bill's Mood" and "Alienation's For the Rich," and you might perhaps be able to discern a spiritual resemblance to the work of Harold Pinter. Some of the best songs from their early albums actually resemble one-act plays or character sketches, brief expository passages intended to illuminate the lives of people trapped by the circumstances of their own misfortune. Even "upbeat" songs like "Everything Right is Wrong Again" and "Nothing's Gonna Change My Clothes" are, on closer examination, abrasive acts of self-mortification.
All the people are so happy now, their heads are caving in,
I'm glad they are a snowman with protective rubber skin,
But every little thing's a domino that falls on different dots,
And crashes into everything that tries to make it stop.
There's a reason why these guys became so popular with nerds: they appeal to young nerds' inflated sense of self-importance, the irrefutable conviction that everything going on inside their heads is far more important than whatever might be going on outside. Attempts to communicate are most likely doomed by the subject's inability to look beyond the frame of their own neurosis in order to acknowledge another person as more than an appendage ("Don't Let's Start"). The most genuinely affecting song on the album - "She's An Angel" - is less sincere than it might appear on first blush, inasmuch as it is built around the lyrical conceit of taking a commonplace romantic compliment and weaving it into a sci-fi fable. They Might Be Giants would have very little material if it weren't for their nigh-autistic ability to literalize familiar idioms in a clever, albeit occasionally maddening fashion.
When you're following an angel
Does it mean you have to throw your body off a building?
Somewhere they're meeting on a pinhead
Calling you an angel, calling you the nicest things.
I heard they had a space program,
When they sing you can't hear, there's no air.
Sometimes I think I kind of like that and
Other times I think I'm already there.
What saves them from their own worst impulses - and what will alway save them - is their skill as songwriters. This album appears at times to have been conjured up out of thin air: it's lo-fi and doggedly minimal, using energy and enthusiasm to cover the fact that the whole album was recorded with no more instruments than two people could carry on the subway. My patience for odd vignettes like "Chess Piece Face" and "Rabid Child" was never particularly strong, and the many weird interludes that dot this album do not seems to have grown less annoying with age. But at the same time the effect of these interludes is countered by the handful of truly great pop songs that dot the album. They Might Be Giants are and have been almost from their inception gifted songwriters in the great tradition of formalist power pop. There's a reason why "Don't Let's Start" made it onto rotation on MTV despite the fact that it was a terrible video by a no-name indie band with a weird name: it's a catchy song constructed with exacting precision. Everything is exactly where it should be: the intro, the chorus, the middle eight, the way it seems to go a little bit faster for the final chorus - this is how you write a pop song, this is how you build a tiny ladder to transcendence on a 4/4 scaffold. Even when their subject matter betrayed them their skill saw them through. If on their first album this skill is occasionally obscured and diffused by a surfeit of ambition, their second album would see the duo tighten their songwriting focus with the methodical precision of a laser.

(out of five)

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