My friend Heidi says that They Might Be Giants sound like the Beach Boys covering the Dead Kennedys. She asserts this in disgust, but I think this may be the very reason I like them. Imagine if Brian Wilson had included “Don’t worry it’s for a cause / feeding global corporations’ claws” (or pretty much any other Kennedys’ line) in the lyrics to “Surfin’ Safari.” There would’ve been no time for a Cold War, because everyone would have been too busy either dancing or cracking up. When a song voices the bleakest of possibilities over a tune that bounces like it lives on a trampoline, don’t restrain yourself: stomp around and flail like an idiot. (Science now knows that flailing is the most satisfying response to such a concise embodiment of the human struggle, i.e., the unbreakable cycle of rising and falling to which men are tied.) Flail! Especially if you’re listening to They Might Be Giants, because as an added bonus to the hypothetical Beach Boys-Kennedys combo, when this band stitches pessimism and optimism together, the seam barely shows.
In this respect, They Might Be Giants’ latest release, the EP Indestructible Object, fits right in with their previous works. The five tracks allude to such serious themes as confusion, condescension, and death, via lyrical absurdity focusing on an ant who crawls into your head before becoming president, a squabble with FDR over a potentially clashing necktie, and additional weirdness. Musically, the songs bounce around as much as ever, although the band does separate this album from past efforts through an array of instrumental experiments.
The disc begins with “Am I Awake?” and absolute confusion: the song’s protagonist seems to have woken up either extremely feverish or possibly dead. The frightful predicament is best made clear in the lines: “These are not the clothes I had on / when I went to bed. / And something else besides my hair / Is growing from my head.” It’s disorienting enough to wake up in unfamiliar clothing without having to worry about what might be sprouting from you. Discomfort is pushed to the extreme, aided by manic drum loops. When I imagine the singer trying to figure out if his decomposing scalp has fertilized a tulip, it’s pretty weird. They Might Be Giants try to make death funny.
I don’t have much sympathy for the singer of the third track, “Au Contraire.” This is some jerk that argues for the sake of arguing, and condescendingly too. What pushes him beyond the realm of despicable, and into that of laughable, is the massive rift between who he’s arguing with and what about. The first verse tells of a disagreement with—not merely the iconic David Bowie—but a David Bowie who has learned to fly. The disagreement? Whether or not Bowie’s chops look cool. The third verse is even more absurd, detailing a poker match between Gandhi, Bach, and Jodie Foster. Gandhi is elated because he’s got a full house, beating out Foster’s two pair and Bach’s three of a kind, but our narrator has to challenge him. Just imagine someone condescending to Gandhi, about poker rules, and the jerk’s even got them wrong. Not to mention the way he contradicts the famously bald pacifist, stating: “Au contraire, you square / Wash that notion from your hair.” When you hear condescension taken to its ugliest extreme, it makes you want to kick yourself for all the times you may have even approached this trait (by saying something like: “Of course, Sartre notes that…” or “it’s like in Ulysses, where…”). But the song’s played with such jolly, teeter-tottering chords that you end up snapping your fingers, vowing to better serve your fellow man.
Nothing I write about “Ant” can compare to what essayist Sarah Vowell has said (in the 2003 documentary Gigantic). Evidently, the song’s been around for some time; not only was a version of it released as a B-Side in 1990, but Vowell once heard it on Dial-A-Song (A long running phone service provided by the band). Vowell says: “I just remember once being in tears and calling it up and there was this song about how there’s an ant crawling up my back.” She laughs. “I just started laughing `cause it was just a silly idea of this…insect tickling your skin and, um, you know, how bad can the world be if there’s a song about that—and a phone number in Brooklyn you can call to hear about it?” Agreed. I’ll only add that the latest recording of this song is fairly new, improved, and lengthened. The beginning is slowed down and the vocals softened almost to a whisper, so that by the end, when keyboard and brass have finished an exhaustive yet inconclusive 60-second battle for the title of Strangest Possible Sound, you feel like you’ve somehow accelerated from zero to a thousand over the course of three minutes.
Finally, there’s the Beach Boys cover. I was a little nervous to read it was recorded live—some of the band’s recordings from the mostly-live Severe Tire Damage sound strained at times—but after listening to it I honestly couldn’t tell it wasn’t a studio track. The Giants’ version is quite faithful to the original, with the exception of the instruments; tuba and accordion serve as the backbone in this version. The first time through, I was a bit disappointed that they didn’t mess with it more. Why didn’t they speed it way up or make it electronic or add a new verse from the perspective of Caroline’s hair or something equally odd? Then I realized — as I should have from the beginning — that this would be musical murder, that “Caroline, No,” is really quite a beautiful song and should be mostly left alone. So what’s the point of covering a song that’s already pretty perfect? When I dug a little into the lyrics, it started to make sense. The lines ache with mourning, but they’re hopeful too. They’re also fairly complex. What could be interpreted as a standard rejection song (based on lyrics such as: “You break my heart / I only want to run and hide”) is a bit more complicated, as implied in the next line: “It’s so sad to watch / The sweet thing die.” If you compare the latter with the lines “How could you lose that happy glow,” and “Could I ever find in you again / Things that made me love you so much then,” it becomes apparent that the “sweet thing” may not refer to the love shared between the couple, or their past relationship, but to a piece of Caroline that has disappeared. I’m guessing They Might Be Giants must love these lyrics. Hope and despair are perfectly muddled, as is the reason for the break-up. The singer of “Caroline, No” fits in perfectly with the Giants’ cast of characters. When the protagonist of “Memo to Human Resources” says: “I’m searching for some disbelief that I can still suspend,” I can imagine the singer of “Caroline, No” shaking his head and saying: “Same here.”
Now that I’ve implied that the songs on this EP have characters who can converse with one another, I have likely lost what little reviewing credibility I once had. But I will gain it back, in this, the conclusion. To wrap it up then: the new They Might Be Giants EP, and in fact all They Might Be Giants albums (even their concept album full of children’s music) are amazingly muddled. That is, the albums’ various themes and instrument choices and subject matter are very well-stirred, but you still can’t hide the fact that stirring has happened. I’d like to argue that this is a good kind of muddled, like a pot of gumbo where the broth is thick with atomized okra and onions. If you prefer an album of non-muddled music—emotionally and lyrically pure, solid in style and structure—you just may hate this EP. But if you enjoy a thick stew, then by the power of simile, I declare that you must love this record.
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