They Might Be Giants are back with a new album, less than two years after their previous album cycle (which actually included three records) wrapped up. I Like Fun is their 20th studio album, and it boasts the same mixture of catchy power pop and musically omnivorous experimentation as the bulk of their catalog. Co-frontmen John Linnell and John Flansburgh have been at it for 35 years, but they never seem to run out of melodic hooks and interesting musical ideas.
The album begins with “Let’s Get This Over With”, a sprightly Linnell song driven by his piano and organ lines and by Marty Beller’s confident drumming. Sonically the song features wordless catchy background vocals in the chorus, a Linnell hallmark. But it also has a couple of more subtle touches. There are no guitars in the song, which is easy to miss given the prominence of the piano. It also opens with the line, “The drumbeat never changes tempo / It’s steady like a rock.” This calls attention to the thumping bass drum, which is bigger and boomier than a typical drumset kick drum. It sounds like the band used a big concert bass drum for the song, the kind you’d see in a symphony orchestra or high school band performance.
While this bass drum doesn’t show up again on the record, there are plenty of other notable sounds scattered throughout I Like Fun. Linnell’s “By the Time You Get This” features a distorted fuzz synth sound more typical of chiptune and full-on synth rock outfits than TMBG. It lends an off-kilter tone to a catchy song that’s already written as a time capsule message buried in the year 937 and not intended to be opened until 1937. Flansburgh’s oddball title track “I Like Fun” uses a bass clarinet as its main instrument, and accompanies it with a muted trumpet and simple snare drum. “McCafferty’s Bib” uses a mid-tempo hip-hop style drum loop as its foundation and fills out its sparse instrumentation with a strange, tinny chiming sound and a pair of (regular, non-bass) clarinets while Linnell sings yet another earworm melody on top.
As far as more traditional songs go, Linnell delivers a pair of songs that should immediately enter the already-large pantheon of flat-out great TMBG tracks. “Push Back the Hands” finds the band back in the disco-rock milieu that served them so well on 2016’s “I’ll Be Haunting You.” The song opens with a great disco guitar riff and follows with the instant classic line, “You would give your right arm to go back / To when you had a right arm.” The chorus finds Linnell singing “Push back the hands of time” with one of those instant sing along melodies, buttressed by a pitch perfect high harmony. “When the Lights Come On” chugs along with walking bass and country-style galloping snare drum as a classic unreliable narrator sings in a fractured style about his plans to get out of the pitch black dungeon he and another person are trapped in. The relentless snare from Beller gives the song a bit more tension than other Linnell songs of this nature even though the melody is as catchy as ever. Dan Miller’s brief guitar leads effectively add to the country trappings of the track while somehow Linnell’s singing and Flansburgh’s rhythm guitar work keep the song feeling like a rock song.
Between the new classics and the strangely arranged songs lays the bulk of the album. Flansburgh contributes a handful of solid rockers, like the breakup song “All Time What”, which finds him singing at the top of his range to great effect while amusingly making up words in the bridge (“Complete completely completelier / Defeat defeatly defeatlier”). “The Bright Side” resembles a late ’60s pop-rock song with its mix of jangly guitar, sunny melody, and vocal harmonies. Linnell’s “Mrs. Bluebeard” is sung from the point of view of the corpse of Bluebeard’s wife as she goes over her recriminations for the choices she made that led to her death at the hands of her husband. For most bands this would be by far the weirdest song on an album. For TMBG the thing most worth mentioning in “Mrs. Bluebeard” is the unusually complex piano work from Linnell.
Flansburgh’s “Lake Monsters” is another one with an odd premise. Apparently the various lake monsters of the United States are emerging from their lakes, disgusted with the state of the country, and ready to be politically active and exercise their right to vote. Musically the song doesn’t live up to the premise but the repeated outro line, “No hypnosis like a mass hypnosis / ‘Cause a mass hypnosis isn’t happening”, is pretty great. Flansburgh also has “The Greatest”, which may be one of the best sad sack songs in the band’s catalog. “They call me ‘The Greatest’ / ‘Cause I’m not very good, and they’re being sarcastic” he moans in a quiet falsetto, and goes on to explain in detail why he’s not going to follow through on any of his plans to get back at them. Musically, the song pulses with only slow bass and accordion to accompany Flansburgh’s voice. Closer “Last Wave” includes Linnell’s most energetic vocal performance on the album and also has some great harmony as well as call and response between the two singers, which is always a treat.
In the age of streaming music any album can be the gateway to a band and I Like Fun is as good a place to start with They Might Be Giants as any. The band’s endlessly replenishing audience should be just as happy with this record as the vast bulk of their catalog. There are no outright clunkers here; I Like Fun has none of the “this is what we have left” feel of 2016’s uneven Phone Power. As 2018 opens, the band is embarking on another year of their weekly Dial-A-Song project, now an app as well as a phone number and YouTube series. Many of these songs will likely end up there, but the challenge of putting out songs weekly should also result in the band’s 21st album before the year is out.