There’s a courtroom scene in the Coen Brothers’ film The Man Who Wasn’t There that defies all preconceived ideas of what typically makes up such a scene. Normally, a courtroom scene is used to build a movie’s tension. Viewers lean toward the screen as a lawyer begins the case-winning speech, which will prove the impossible: the defendant, who everyone thought would surely be convicted, is actually undoubtedly innocent (or vice versa). Conversely, in The Man Who Wasn’t There, the lawyer’s crucial speech is first drowned out by an unenthusiastic voice over, then cut off entirely when the defendant gets punched in the face by a member of the courtroom audience. The scene ends in a mistrial, and the audience is left with a challenge to its movie-going belief system. I’d like to argue that such a challenge is both educational and pleasing. When a movie breaks a genre’s rules, it exposes them. The audience gets a lesson in film studies in addition to a surprise plot twist. The Coen Brothers love to play with genre rules, resulting in movies that both taunt and pay tribute to older movies within the genre.
Music review? Who said anything about a music…just who are you, anyway? I’m writing about movies here and that’s that. Try and stop me, slugger.
Ha, ha! I’m only kidding! It was all a trick! What I really want to argue is that They Might Be Giants are the Coen Brothers of rock music. That is, just as the Coens fool around with film genres, They Might Be Giants play with musical styles and conceits incessantly, resulting in thought-provoking and ridiculously entertaining albums. Their latest one is called The Spine, and its songs are brimming with history-conscious goodness.
One of The Spine’s shiniest gems, “The World Before Later On,” resembles a sad vocal number sung in a lonely nightclub. The track leads off with a moping keyboard. Nearly whispered vocals soon join in, aided by a tearful horn section. The singer twice despairs: “I’m trapped in a world before later on.” One might guess that the following lyrics would depict a child who yearns for adulthood, or perhaps a young man awaiting his lover’s return from abroad. This is how lonely nightclub numbers go. It is unlikely one would guess that the next sorrowful line would yearn: “Where’s my hovercraft?” And then: “Where’s my jetpack?” Unlike the typical club performer, we’re dealing here with a singer whose troubles, short of scientific invention, we cannot cure. “The World Before Later On” shakes the conventional woeful tune awake: Hey, man, there’s a whole world of concerns out there! (Even if those concerns are futuristic fantasy deserving of mockery.)
One of the more complicated pieces on the album has a deceptively simple title: “Wearing a raincoat.” It seems harmless enough. Yet it’s a song intent on causing mental pain, ruthlessly mixing metaphor after metaphor until all sense is lost. At one point, the “helpful” singer lets us know that
“Needing a mind for later on
Is a friend that comes at a price
But when you hate the friend that comes at a price
You will play the drums to help you sleep”
Huh? Here’s a clue, though: not only is the song laced with reversed guitar tracks, but also Lennonesque “Aaaaaaah”s in the background. Thus it seems this track is a tribute/joke directed at some of the more coded Beatles songs (you know, like “I am the Walrus,” and “Glass Onion.”) Whether or not the Beatles allusion adds any great meaning to the song, it definitely adds entertainment. To further increase the musical diversity, there’s a groovy bass and drum interlude, and a vocoder even sneaks in for a verse.
I don’t know if it’s always a conscious decision, but They Might Be Giants somehow manage to pack a great deal of history into their songs. (Their band name is even lifted directly from an old movie title). When a song can—in addition to carrying its own unique musical statement—allude to, and mess with, styles of the past, there is potential for it become timeless. This makes sense merely by thinking literally: if a song draws part of its theme, or part of its structure, from a previous time, and gives it new meaning, then that theme or structure is revealed as sort of timeless by definition. And of course, literally again, it’s timeless art that endures through the generations. Since the previous couple of sentences have surely revealed me to be a pretentious jerk, I guess I’ll go a little further and say that They Might Be Giants, like the Coen Brothers, may just follow a (somewhat less popular, yet parallel) trail in the same direction as the likes of Joyce and Eliot. The trail to immortality! Throw The Spine into your stereo and listen to the voices of the undead.
Ween – Chocolate and Cheese
Tom Waits – Mule Variations
Robyn Hitchcock – Jewels for Sophia