I wanted to like The Else, even as I braced myself for the worst. You can't go home again.
I freely admit that I gave up on They Might Be Giants a long time ago. This may seem like an odd admission with which to begin a review, but bear with me.
Somewhere around the turn of the century I turned away. After well over a decade of committed fandom, I found myself singularly unmoved by the band's direction, uninspired by new tracks and simply ready to let go. Fandom is not, as the noted jurist may have noted had he the inclination, a suicide pact. I opted out somewhere between the release of the perfunctory live album Severe Tire Damage and the tragedy-shadowed Mink Car (released on 9/11/01), somewhere in the middle of a pile of internet-only releases that seemed for all the world like exercises in closet-cleaning. During the '90s, the group had released a string of gradually darker and more mature albums that reflected a slight shift from the gimmick-laden pop experimentalism of their early, still-brilliant independent releases. The fanbase split appropriately enough, and shifts in management at their label (Elektra) undercut their support at just the point where their albums stood the most immediate chance of penetrating the mainstream.
After the surprise novelty success of Flood in 1990, the musical climate changed considerably. Formerly niche "alternative" bands from across the spectrum had crashed the national spotlight. True, They Might Be Giants were about as diametrically different in tone and execution from the likes of Nirvana and R.E.M. as conceivably possible, but if you scratched the surface you'd find the same influences -- the Pixies, Elvis Costello, the Meat Puppets -- albeit utilized quite differently. John Henry should have been one of the '90s great alternative rock albums, but now it's merely a brief footnote, victim of label attrition and shoddy promotion.
I can't speak for the band's motivations, only the results: after their major-label adventures, They Might Be Giants retrenched and began paying more attention to their strident fanbase. The downbeat tone of the later Elektra albums disappeared and was replaced by a return to the kind of consciously silly ditty-based songwriting that had dominated their early material. But there was, for me at least, a crucial difference: the early albums, Lincoln in particular, had also benefited from a compelling emotional intensity, a froth of adolescent and young adult existential anxiety borne atop waves of pop-culture savvy obfuscation and nerdy self-deprecation. Albums like John Henry and Factory Showroom had brought those undercurrents more fully to the fore, leavened by gradually dawning maturity; subsequent albums seemed comparatively sterile, possessed by a strong sense of professionalism and sterling musicianship, but lacking something vital all the same.
The opportunity to review The Else seemed like as good an opportunity to catch up with some old friends as I was likely to find. Thankfully, an uncharacteristically long lead-in time for this review meant that I had much longer than usual to deliver my write up. In my experience, first impressions of TMBG albums are often notoriously faulty. I wanted the chance to overcome any native resistance I might have possessed and appreciate the album on its own terms. I owed the band nothing less, given how many years they'd been at or near the top of my playlist. I wanted to like The Else, even as I braced myself for the worst. You can't go home again, as they say.
I needn't have worried. It's actually quite uncanny, considering how many years have passed and how much water has passed under the bridge, but TMBG sound remarkably unchanged from their early '90s heyday. In some groups this kind of consistency might be considered a sinful indulgence, but in this case I believe the results speak for themselves. Consistently fine songwriting and inventive musicianship are virtues that never really go out of style. Perhaps the general musical climate has also changed significantly enough that TMBG seem far less anomalous in context than they once did. The critical success of willfully leftfield groups such as Of Montreal and the Decemberists -- groups whose DNA surely contains more than a trace of TMBG -- may have also inoculated the group from the accusations of obscurantism to which they had once fallen victim.
Ultimately, however, TMBG's great appeal lies in their effortlessly catchy approach to pop songwriting. Listening to The Else over the course of a few weeks, it was remarkable to me just how easy it became to love the album. Power-pop is the group's default mode, and we have been in the midst of a mini-power-pop renaissance for quite some time: a song like "Feign Amnesia", with its overt references to the Electric Light Orchestra, could easily have wandered in off the new New Pornographers LP -- substitute John Flansburgh's backup vocals for Neko Case and John Linnell isn't that far off from AC Newman's adenoidal tenor.
It's a blessedly concise album, just under forty minutes for thirteen tracks, none longer than three and a half minutes. The Dust Brothers' production is clear and crisp, spotlighting in most cases the strength of the bare arrangements, guitar, bass and drums with occasional harmonies. There is surprisingly not much in the way of keyboard or samples added throughout, but when they do appear, they are are used to great strategic affect -- as during the moody intro to "Careful What You Pack" and the frenetic breakbeat of "Withered Hope". Mostly, however, the album is surprisingly bare, the strength of the songwriting making the arrangements seem far more complicated than they actually are. Longtime fans might be more surprised by the album's most notable absence: the accordion. Considering how integral that instrument has always been with the group's profile, it's a notable exclusion, but it's also significant that I didn't even notice the absence until about my 20th listen.
If anything, the album's guitar-heavy vibe hearkens back to John Henry: the exotic weirdness of their early and recent catalog is almost totally gone, replaced by an occasional heaviness that brings to mind that album's "A Self Called Nowhere" and "Snail Shell". ("Climbing the Walls" and "Contrecoup" seem specifically to recall the former, with the retro feel of "Take Out the Trash" bringing the latter to mind.) What was more surprising to me than any lack of accordion, however, was the not-so-subtle political bent of many of the album's lyrics. Although TMBG has never exactly shied away from politics (their first two albums are fairly political in their abstruse fashion), I was nonetheless taken aback by a track like "Careful What You Pack", with its evocation of Donald Rumsfeld ("The known, the unknown and the under-known"), and the continual references to blundering into trouble without thinking ("Careful what you pack / There's no going back"). "The Cap'm" is at least ostensibly about an authority figure of dubious capacity ("Look me over, I'm the Cap'm / Go ahead and mess with me you'll find out what will happen"), more concerned with vanity than responsibility ("My hat looks good on me? / I agree").
The album closes with "The Mesopotamians", a rousing sing-along that seems to be about, alternately, a band called the Mesopotamians and the actual long-dead monarchs of Mesopotamia who secretly rule the desert, or perhaps a rock band composed of the ghosts of Sargon, Hammurabi, et al. Yeah, it's a bit odd, but it also manages the neat trick of eliding current events while still sneaking a subtle dig at contemporary politics: Mesopotamia is modern-day Iraq, and is also home to some of the oldest civilizations on the planet. In a very real way the Mesopotamian desert is still ruled by the lords of antiquity, in that geography is defined by history and cultural memory is long indeed. But in the end it's hard to focus on any supposed political commentary when the song itself is just so damn catchy.
So despite my natural skepticism, it's hard not to be impressed with The Else. Regardless of how much I may want to downplay or downgrade the nostalgic satisfaction of hearing a great TMBG album, I really can't: this is a great TMBG album, and a great TMBG album is pretty damn good by any yardstick. Appropriately, it's a modest statement -- concise, understated, almost raw in places, but with a studied professionalism that cannot be discounted. There are none of the indulgences or digressions which characterized the band's early albums. Every note is in precisely the right place. It may not be full of surprises -- the pleasures here are no less satisfying for their familiarity -- but for a band looking at two and a half decades of continuous output, The Else is far more sprightly than it has any right to be.