I received a pair of interesting and very thoughtful comments to Monday's review of Apollo 18 - interesting and thoughtful enough that I thought it was worth the time to repost the conversation and my replies for the benefit of anyone who might not other pay attention to the comment section.
The first comment, from my most loyal reader moose n squirrel (seriously, we should all be so lucky as to have such a close reader!), presented as a rebuttal:
I have to say, your take on TMBG is striking me as more than a little simplistic at this point. What you see as "nerdiness" or "a refusal to grow up" I see as a refreshing ability to work outside the boxes that music critics (and wannabe critics) typically try to cram artists into. There's a tendency on the part of critics - who, I'm sorry, are some of the dumbest fucking people on the planet when it comes to talking about music - to try to only discuss music in terms of what label they can slap on it (the other tendency they have is to talk about music entirely in terms of how well the band's previous album sold, or how trendy their style of music is, without actually talking about what the actual fucking music sounds like). TMBG is a hard band to label precisely because of their ability and tendency to hop from one genre to another,, even within the same song, which has gotten them dismissed as "quirky" or a novelty act. Because their lyrics are smart, they're called "nerds." Because they write fantastic pop tunes, and because they've already been relegated to the "quirk"ghetto, they've been dubbed "childish," because we've decided that music that's fun, but that's too complex for stupid adults to understand, should be relegated to childrenAnd then, on a similar note, from Jebediah-P:
You imply that the band doesn't take itself seriously, and I've got to say, are we listening to the same band? Yes, TMBG has a sense of humor. But the jokes they tell are about disease, decay, addiction, depression, war, divorce, paralysis and death. Much of "Fingertips" itself is positively funereal. A while back in your review of Lincoln you dismissed "The Pencil Rain" as a bit of nonsense, which made me scratch my head, because that's as "messagey" as anything the Johns ever wrote - it's an obvious, sledgehammer-subtle antiwar song.
You hold out "Narrow Your Eyes" as one of their best songs, because... why? Because it's a "real" song, and it's a "real" song because... why? Because it's about a traditional subject (love/break-up) written in a traditional style with more-or-less traditional instrumentation? (If only they cut out the accordion - then it'd REALLY be "real"!) That's a pretty strange, blinkered use of that term. Is it that that song is "real," or that you have a nice, grown-up-sounding category you can push it off into? "AHA! Flansburgh is singing a 'break-up' song! CHECK!"
"Ana Ng," "Kiss Me, Son of God," "See the Constellation," "I Palindrome I," "Birdhouse in Your Soul," "The End of the Tour" "Destination Moon" "The End of the Tour" - I guess none of those are "real" songs then. But they are fucking amazing songs, and they are much, much better songs then "Narrow Your Eyes," both because they're better-written and more original and because they're still about real emotions. For whatever otherworldly trappings those songs may have, they're about loneliness, exploitation, obsession, death, delusion and longing, approached in a way that's smart, funny, and sometimes deeply affecting.
Like some of the others above, I find your take on "authenticity" short-sighted. Why should They Might Be Giants feel the need to be "authentic" if their songs have little relevance to the world outside themselves? There is no reason for a song to be "real" if it's about a personal topic of little social relevance. A great deal of legitimately terrible music has been produced in the name of such “authenticity”. They Might Be Giants' greatest strength is their whimsy, their refusal to make vanilla songs despite having the competence to do so.To both of these comments, I will say first and foremost that I sympathize with your position and, to an extent, cede the point. My problems with They Might Be Giants are my own, the result of living with this band for - what, twenty-three years now since I bought a copy of Flood? - and having committed a large part of their catalog to memory. Make no mistake: whatever my conclusions my be, I still have all of these albums memorized backwards and forwards, at least up through Factory Showroom. After they leave Elektra I have to admit my interest wanes precipitously, for a number of reasons. I don't think, until Join Us, they had produced an LP even half as good as anything from the Restless or Elektra years. The music the produced in the intervening years struck me as vaguely shrill, somewhat wrong-footed in a way that their first albums never were. I am certainly open to the possibility that the only real difference was myself - I changed, my tastes changes, whatever - "it's not you, it's me."
Your dismissal of "Fingertips" disregards an important factor of what makes the band unique: their desire to be several bands at the same time. Most They Might Be Giants albums feature songs that vary a great deal in composition and subject matter, sampling the whole pop spectrum. "Fingertips" is the ultimate expression of this. It also strikes me as a much more personal song than "Narrow Your Eyes". "Narrow Your Eyes" is about a breakup. "Fingertips" is about imitating every song on the radio and making fun of them at the same time. It's a song for showing off how you’re smarter than everybody else. It's silly and obnoxious and much more authentic for They Might be Giants than a song without jokes or vocabulary words.
"Real"songs imploy far more odious gimmickry than "Joke" songs. The "gimmick of no gimmicks", so to speak. Reality is not a breakup song. To imply this, to dismiss the goofy as unimportant, is miserablism par excellence.
Make no mistake, I appreciate this series of posts quite a bit. It turned me on to Join Us and helped me better appreciate some of the material from TMBG’s back catalogue, especially John Henry. It’s just that this post has exposed an unfortunate undercurrent in those previous. An inability to see the forest for the trees.
There's an old saw that gets trotted out every now and again (although, much less so now that so much of Western culture has been set on a course of terminal infantilization), actually a verse from the New Testament, 1 Corinthians 13:11:
When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.I hate that quote, and I think it encapsulates a perfectly rancid view of maturity, of maturity as preparation for seriousness and bloody-mindedness to the exclusion of all else. We live in a wonderful world where we can be perfectly functional adults who pay taxes, kiss ladies and prosper while also maintaining comics blogs. It would be the height of hypocrisy to accuse They Might Be Giants of failing to conform to some notion of High Seriousness, when I myself flee from the unpleasant drudgery of day-to-day life by posting pictures of Lea Thompson in skimpy dresses.
And yet . . . there is nonetheless a part of me that long ago became dissatisfied with the band for precisely those reasons. There's a difference between putting away childish things and simply wallowing in them. The last time I saw They Might Be Giants was in 2009 - actually, New Years Eve 2009, just before the calenders switched over to 2010. It had been exactly ten years since I had seen them last - in 1999, at a street fair in downtown Denver of all things - and I had no idea what to expect. They were playing two shows that day: an afternoon matinee for the kids' music, and then an evening rock show. So I was expecting, you know, a rock show.
But that wasn't what they gave us. I had remembered them being a pretty fierce live act, but this time around, not so much. They had a lot of gags, a lot of schtick - hand puppets, toy drum kits, confetti canons. They brought out the extremely annoying John Hodgman to do some really, really unfunny and very much protracted bit about a rich person. And then - even though they had played a kids' matinee earlier that day for the express purpose of playing their kids' music for their kid fans - they played a pile of songs from their kids albums anyway - to a room full of adults, let me stress. And all through it I kept rolling my eyes, hoping that they'd burn through the jokes and the schtick and actually, you know, start the show, get down to the business of playing some of their songs. And they never did - it was just joke after joke, and I got tired of sitting their waiting for them to play two songs in a row without interrupting the show for a bad gag. To say nothing of a bad gag, it left a bad taste in my mouth.
You're not going to find a bigger booster of those first six albums than me. Despite my misgivings - which are completely my own - those albums are a part of me and always will be. If you've been reading along you've seen me discuss just how deep their dark streak runs - all the way back to their self titled debut, although I'd argue that their bleakest and most profoundly unsettling album is still Lincoln (although John Henry, as we'll see when I get around to it in the near future, certainly gives it a run for its money in terms of unvarnished misanthropy). I also see a lot of the more manic, chipper, and unabashedly goofy material from their earliest albums as being unpleasantly shrill and occasionally even sinister. What I get from their more recent albums, however, is the same kind of manic, chipper, and unabashedly goofy material with all the hard edges sanded away.
It was such a pleasant surprise to put Join Us onto the stereo and actually hear Linnell call someone a dick - not because I'm twelve years old and like hearing grown-ups cussing, but simply that it seemed to be a kind of "all clear" sign to those of us who had been left in the cold by their childrens' material. And sure enough, if you look at the liner notes and read the lyrics for Join Us, it's all about death, death, death - including a surprisingly, refreshingly tacky visual pun about the Dakota apartment building in New York. It's not a perfect album but it is a very good album.
So yeah, the best answer I can provide is that my prejudices are my own, and I acknowledge the shortcomings of my own perspective. I've been frustrated by the band for a long time - it's not that I wanted them to "grow up," so much that from my perspective it seemed as if their state of permanent arrested development had begun to sap their vitality. It's that edge, the razor-thin dividing line between cynical misanthropy and cheery fortitude, that defines their best music. Their more straight-forward songs - "Narrow Your Eyes," "End of the Tour," even "You Don't Like Me" off Join Us - all take advantage of our expectations regarding what They Might Be Giants songs should sound like, and are that much more effective for confounding our expectations of glib cleverness. They're the codices that make all the rest of their strange, contradictory, frustrating, wonderful music legible.