When last we heard from They Might Be Giants, they were wrapping up 2018 by releasing their second and third records of that year. My Murdered Remains collected all of the songs left on the cutting room floor from their major release of the year, I Like Fun. The Escape Team was a brief collaborative album where the band worked with artist David Cowles to create songs for characters from his comic book of the same name. The group did embark on the first tour leg of 2020’s 30th-anniversary celebration of their biggest album, Flood, but the bulk of the dates were pushed due to COVID. Now those shows are scheduled for spring 2022 and will also serve as the tour for the new album, BOOK.
As is often the case with They Might Be Giants, current events don’t seem to have directly affected the songwriting for the album, although there are two notable exceptions. “I Lost Thursday”, the record’s first single is a funk-rock track featuring groovy synth bass from keyboardist John Linnell and vocals from guitarist John Flansburgh. The lyrics are a bit surreal, as per usual with TMBG, but the crux of the song seems to be “I lost Thursday / Like it was nothing / That fact is uncontested.” There’s also a refrain about being spaced out and not being able to tell one day from the next. It very much seems like a song about the experience of quarantine.
Then there’s “If Day for Winnipeg”, which at first seems like just an oddball Flansburgh track. It opens with strange, Gamelan-like metallic percussion and woodblock and features low, foghorn-esque sounds. The lyrics begin with the self-referential line, “Who ever cared about topical things?” Flansburgh goes on to sing, “If Day is for everyone / Not just for Winnipeg / If Day is for everyone from now on.” This is quite oblique unless one is aware that If Day occurred during World War II, where the Canadian city simulated a Nazi invasion. With this knowledge, the song snaps into focus as a comment on the events of 6 January 2021 at the US Capitol building. Lines like “I’ve broken Godwin’s Law” and “It all began as an agitprop stunt / Costumes and chants from a crowd” make the comparison clear. The unusual tone of the song, which is outwardly playful-sounding but also just a bit unsettling, makes more sense in this context.
Linnell, the band’s other founding member, doesn’t really bother with lyrics that can be pinned down in that fashion. The album opens with his “Synopsis for Latecomers”, which is sublimely ridiculous. The song shuffles along on a 6/8 beat, but much of the music consists of two-beat patterns over the top of the drums. That gives the song a chugging, heavy feel, accentuated by distorted, crunchy organ and guitar tones. Linnell begins the song by promising a recap of what is happening for people who weren’t there. Then he proceeds to pile up more and more bizarre scenarios without ever getting to the explanation. Container ships in the desert, moaning sounds in the forest, and then the climax of the song: “Who ate the babies? / WHO ATE THE BABIES??” As the lyrics start to wrap up, the band’s part-time horn section comes in, giving the song’s already-heavy groove even more weight. Linnell devolves into singing “Doodley doodley doo”, as lead guitarist Dan Miller takes over to finish the track with a ripping fuzz guitar solo.
The rest of the album is probably a little more tilted towards the band’s catchy power-pop side than their tendency towards strangeness. There’s plenty of each to be found among these 15 tracks, though. Flansburgh’s “Moonbeam Rays” is a bright, hooky, fuzzed-out song about a person finally choosing to leave a relationship physically. The lightly distorted guitars and driving four-on-the-floor beat give the track a similar feeling of heaviness to “Synopsis for Latecomers”, and it fits in nicely as the record’s second song. “Brontosaurus” might be the catchiest track this time out. It zips along quickly, with Linnell telling a disjointed story about a brontosaurus living in modern times. It features pounding drums from Marty Beller, low piano chords, punchy horns, and active bass from Danny Weinkauf. Flansburgh sings the backing vocals here in a rare but welcome occurrence on TMBG’s recent studio recordings.
Linnell spices up a pair of his more rocking tracks with unusual choices. “I Can’t Remember the Dream” directly uses the main riff from the classic song “Louie Louie” as its own, right down to being in the same key. “Dream” does extend that riff in exciting ways, but it’s a striking choice to be that blatant. The song itself is a typical Linnell joint with a happy melody but a clinically depressed narrator. He sings about wanting to remember the specifics of the dream he had last night because “Most of his memories tend to be bad.” Yet with that riff going and Linnell and Weinkauf’s melodic synth and bass guitar, respectively, it’s a bright and enjoyable song.
“Drown the Clown” uses a circus-like organ sound for its leading hook. It’s perfectly balanced between catchy and annoying as it runs in the background throughout the song. Linnell’s narrator is laser-focused on trying to get a group of people to play the titular card-and-drinking game. However, he keeps mentioning that a weather woman is distracting them and trying to tell them something. Listeners never get to find out what the impending weather disaster is, exactly, but this is yet another Linnell character who very clearly has his priorities a bit askew.
Flansburgh, for his part, is responsible for most of the slower tracks on the record. “Lord Snowdon” is a relaxed Britpop-style track with excellent horn parts, particularly some classical trumpet flourishes. “Darling, the Dose” is a meandering piano-pop song that alternates between dissonant piano passages and layered choral harmonies. “Super Cool” seems to go out of its way to not be cool, with squeaky synth noise in between verses and an intentionally low-energy chorus.
Not to be outdone, Linnell’s “Wait Actually Yeah No” has BOOK‘s most stretched-out singing. An offbeat drum and piano rhythm pattern and muted trumpet stings provide the base for some half-finished thoughts that invariably conclude with “Wait actually yeah no” or “No, never mind” sung exceptionally slowly. The song’s bridge includes a list of seemingly random imaginary things, including secret wolverine, marijuana egg, and self-enclosing whale. The album closer, on the other hand, is fast and driving. “Less Than One” finds Linnell singing more apparent nonsense, but it also seems about attention deficit issues. The catchy refrain is fun but also rather sad, a Linnell specialty. “I took a walk / I got tired / I turned around, and I got almost home / But then I got tired / And turned around again,” is a harmonized sing-along buttressed by the pounding rhythm section.
After 40 years and 20-plus albums that span many, many genres but are almost always filled with big hooks and endearing bizarreness, They Might Be Giants are as energetic and interesting as ever. The fact that they’ve always had an absurdist bent and an experimental side essentially lets them do whatever they want. It helps that they’ve cultivated a large and obsessive fanbase to keep them going. Those fans gladly plunk down their money for things like the oversized coffee-table-style tome that gives BOOK its title. The book is essentially an abstract piece of art featuring a combination of lyrics typed out in creative ways on the page by Paul Sahre. Those lyrics share space with a series of photographs by Brian Karlsson, mainly of found objects discovered on the streets of New York City.
The book works primarily as a separate piece of art that includes lyrics from the album BOOK. The photographs are fascinating but generally not directly thematically linked to the song’s words or music. It’s worth discussing, though, as They Might Be Giants clearly want the two projects to work hand in hand. In the discography of TMBG, BOOK sits solidly in the top half for me. It’s not going to displace the ’80s and ’90s classics like Lincoln or Apollo 18 as a favorite, but it’s a thoroughly enjoyable record from start to finish.