It’s been six years since They Might Be Giants put out a children’s album. That’s long enough for the target audience to have progressed from elementary school to high school and for parents to see their then-infants become first graders. Freed of their record deal with Disney Sound, the band has abandoned the thematic focus of their past three kids’ records (ABC’s, 123’s, and science) and returned to the more freewheeling style of their first child-centric album, 2002’s No!. Appropriate, then, that this one is called Why?
Despite being targeted at the younger set, They Might Be Giants are aware that plenty of parents (and probably just general longtime fans) will also be listening in, and the album’s opening song is decidedly parent-oriented. “Oh You Did” features frequent collaborator (and band co-leader John Flansburgh’s wife) Robin Goldwasser in possibly her best performance with the band. In a light, singsongy tone that nonetheless conveys both exasperation and weariness, Goldwasser tells a child, “Don’t accidentally do things you’ll later regret / Oh no you did”. Lyrically the song just escalates from there, from being rude to dad to dropping eggs out of a 14th story window to shaving the puppy and pouring water down the stairs. Flansburgh and the band’s other frontman, John Linnell, show up in the song’s admittedly (and intentionally?) lackluster chorus as the child, mumbling “Sorry, sorry / Don’t be angry”. Then the band inverts the perspective in the final verse as Goldwasser simply sings “Blah blah blah di blah” to the melody, presumably giving us the child’s point of view on his mother’s lecturing. Musically the song coasts along on quiet, barely there guitar and bass, and a set of bongos is the only percussion. It puts the focus right on Goldwasser and her delivery makes an already-amusing song into a great one.
The rest of the album is pretty typical for They Might Be Giants, kids’ album or not. There are a bunch of catchy rockers, some left-field weirdness that really works, and a couple of songs that end up being clunkers. It’s tough for them all to be great when a record has 18 songs. This is the band’s fifth album directed at kids and their 19th overall, and it comes near the end of a year in which the band has released an adult album as well as a new song to YouTube every week. As musically restless as they are, there aren’t a lot of surprises They Might Be Giants can pull on their fans at this point. But Flansburgh and Linnell are consistently great songwriters with a collective ear for strong hooks and interesting lyrics, and Why? has those qualities in spades despite sounding relatively familiar to longtime fans.
Musically the band never tones down their sound when they write for kids; it’s the lyrics that change. So Linnell’s “I am Invisible” is full of kid fantasies about being invisible. “Tiptoeing and holding my breath”, “Dancing through the supermarket”, and “Did the cat just learn how to fly? / No, I’m only holding him up”, are a few examples. Then there’s the one genuine Linnell question; “There are details / That I haven’t worked out / Like when I eat my lunch / Does it disappear / Or do you see it going all the way down?” Flansburgh’s catchy, toy piano and acoustic guitar-based “And Mom and Kid” is essentially just a list of a variety of family combinations like “And Mom and Dad and kid and kid, and dad and baby”. But much like his subtle reference to biblical angels as “stories” on the band’s science album, he slips in a quick reference to a family with “Dad and Dad and kid and kid.” It’s an easy to miss but real family example that some listeners may not be happy to hear on a child-centric record.
The aforementioned clunkers are few and far between here. Flansburgh contributes the excellently named but completely lackluster “Walking My Cat Named Dog” as well as the 70-second piffle that is “I Just Want to Dance”. The duet “Thinking Machine” is very silly lyrically but musically inert to the point where it’s hard to even pay attention to the words. “So Crazy for Books” isn’t great, either, but it’s such an enthusiastic call out to the nerdy kids that most of the band’s audience are or were that it’s hard to actively dislike.
Bassist Danny Weinkauf is usually content to stay in the background as part of the band, but he’s proven to be a reliable contributor on the group’s kid albums. That is very much in effect here, as his charming, bouncy “Elephants” is one of Why?’s highlights. Other high points include Linnell’s unsettled “I Made a Mess”, which starts like a herky-jerky march as a child describes the mess he made, then blossoms into a tension-filled 6/8 pseudo-chorus driven by Marty Beller’s increasingly chaotic drumming. Finally, the song completely shifts into a straight time feeling for a 30-second coda at the end, making the odd, messy track one of the album’s best marriages of music and lyrics. The experimental “Hello Mrs. Wheelyke” finds Flansburgh singing the main words, while Linnell enters later with counterpoint phrases that completely shift the meaning of what Flansburgh is saying. In this case, the relatively simple arrangement allows the singing to take center stage without being completely boring, unlike the aforementioned “Thinking Machine.”
Even the relatively straightforward material works well here. Flansburgh has written probably two dozen catchy rockers almost exactly like “Omnicorn” in his career, but it’s a formula that still works for the band, especially since it lasts less than two minutes. Similarly, Linnell has done slight variations on the hard-driving “Or So I Have Read” on nearly every They Might Be Giants album, but the song’s theme of being able to find absolutely insane statements on the internet is an effective one. And the album-closing singalong “Then the Kids Took Over” is a variation on the quiet verse-loud catchy chorus song the band has been doing since before the Pixies convinced everybody they invented it. But the rousing premise that the children, when they grow up, are finally going to be the ones to effectively tackle climate change, is tough to be cynical about.
This isn’t my personal favorite They Might Be Giants kids’ album (Here Comes Science still holds that distinction) but it’s as fun and reliable as everything else the band has put out in the 2010s. Why? should be solidly entertaining to its target audience and not nearly as grating or repetitive for parents as some kid-oriented music. Plus, it’s never too early for parents to start introducing their children to one of the best indie rock bands of all time.