They Might Be Giants: Glean
Marketing for Glean pitches the album as a cross-section of the band’s Dial-a-Song output. They Might Be Giants coined the name Dial-a-Song for their answering machine service in the 1980s. Fans or curious neophytes could call a Brooklyn-based number and listen to a song play over the line. The band has now existed for over three decades, and its promotional techniques have always been almost as charmingly forward-looking as their music, which has been consistently entertaining since their debut. One problem that might result from cherrypicking the output from their new Dial-a-Song incarnation could have been incoherence, but eclecticism has always been a virtue in itself on TMBG records. Glean is therefore neither a step forward or backward for this long-running band, and its songs more or less stand on their own terms. Mostly I would like to justify analyzing some of my favorite songs on their own merits. As for the album, I’ll leave my judgment right here: it’s worth getting for fans––well beyond the near-mediocrity of their early 2000s work––and a serviceable introduction for those who are just getting into the band, though last year’s Nanobots is a much better record overall. It’s a cabinet of wonders approach to pop music that emphasizes esoteric subject matter, catchy melodies, and wordplay. It’s TMBG again.
Song Rundown: The Highlights
“Music Jail, Pts. 1 & 2”
A two-part song that begins with a shrill violin riff before transitioning into its bouncy main theme, driven by a sax rather than a bass. Part 1 is an invitation to come to the Music Jail, which is vaguely defined but somehow involves “taking a stand.” The tone is a typical TMBG mix of sinister and upbeat, bringing in the violin at moments of climax before transitioning to the second part. Here, we get more of a wind gust, with clarinets dubbed over a guitar-driven rhythm section. John Flansburgh, the glasses-wearing one of the pair, does one of his best vocal performances of the album in this part, pining for someone to post his bail. Music Jail looks much less appealing in the second part.
“I Can Help the Next in Line”
I have an irrational affection for bass-driven songs, and this two-minute ditty features John Linnell, the pretty boy of the group, singing in the role of a clerk of some kind. His persona alternates between warm invitations and threats, asking for the customer to keep his hands visible at all times. “Next in Line” is another song to feature trembling string sections, which is a departure from the norm for TMBG. It closes with a pleasing round between Flansburgh and Linnell, dissipating the tension of the song after a more aggressive guitar bit. Good stuff.
Ever since joining up with a full rock band in 1994 or so, They Might Be Giants has rocked much harder, not always to good effect for their clever but often slight novelty concepts. “Unpronounceable” is an example of a rock song that preserves the fun eccentricities They Might Be Giants thrive on. Its subject is the narrator’s inability to pronounce someone’s name, which feeds into the style of the song as well: take, for example, the staccato guitar rhythms and the digital distortion added to the song in the bridge. Voices break up and crack, literally destroying pronunciation as we know it. “Unpronounceable” is appealing and melodically sound despite being one of the more conventionally arranged songs on the record.
“Hate the Villanelle”
Having been forced to write villanelles in school, the paranoid hate mongering for complex poetic forms in this song is cathartic. Its lyrics are complex imitating the form it is mocking. Synthesized voices and echoing guitars help Linnell narrate his descent into an inferno of scholarly anxiety. At under two minutes, it’s succinct and threatening, a song that requires little explanation but is probably the most ambitious track here in terms of writing.
“Let Me Tell You About My Operation”
After finishing the last of their children’s albums, TMBG has gotten back into making “adult” records on a regular basis, and the last three they’ve produced have all shared in some patterns. For instance, they all start with rollicking narrative-based songs––”Can’t Keep Johnny Down,” “You’re on Fire,” “Erase”––and, towards the middle of the second half of the record, feature the most daring and, invariably, best song on the album. For Join Us it was “The Lady and the Tiger,” and for Nanobots it was “Darlings of Lumberland,” one of the creepiest and best songs they’ve ever made. “Let Me Tell You About My Operation” is not up to that calibre, but it is without question the best song on the record. Its theme is medical crisis meets urbane swing dance. Jaunty, piercing horn stings, and Flansburgh’s vocal charisma carry this song into my favorites with ease. Even the instrumental breaks manage to impress.