There is a generation of nerds – my generation – among whom probably four out of five people know all of the words to “Particle Man” a popular jam from They Might Be Giants’ landmark 1990 release Flood (assuming they don’t know the album in its entirety; I give you three in five odds of that happening). These people were what I affectionately refer to as nerdcore’s key demographic long before the internet helped nerdcore become the massively popular yet totally flukey (according to a couple of narrow-minded souls at NPR music anyway) phenomenon that it is today. If you were born when Flood was released, you are now old enough (assuming you’ve had your birthday this year) to drink a beer while listening to They Might Be Giants’ brand new album, Join Us, a fact that makes me feel old (do I feel as old as my esteemed colleague Justin? I’m older by a few months, but I would like to think I feel his age or younger pretty much all the time).
The thing is, They Might Be Giants has been around for a long time. They started doing stuff back in the 1980s and they’re still doing stuff. The fact that their current stuff is pretty good is a testament to the musical talents of chief oddballs John Linnell and John Flansburgh, two guys who are just as comfortable writing children’s albums (I believe they’ve released two of those) as they are covering Chumbawamba. That combination alone should entice fans of weird/nerdy pop music and I hope those fans will be happy to know that Join Us is probably the best They Might Be Giants album since 2001’s excellent but underrated (like a lot of They Might Be Giants stuff) Mink Car.
As far as I can tell, there are two crucial ingredients to the success of a They Might Be Giants song. The first is brevity; the two longest songs on Join Us (“Canajoharie” and “Celebration”) stop short of the four minute mark. The second ingredient is the ability to weld strange, dark, and sometimes downright disturbing subject matter to catchy melodies. The chief example from Join Us seems to be “When Will You Die” according to the press I’ve read about the record. The song doesn’t strike me as being all that dark, but I mostly just imagine they’re singing it to Dick “Fuck the Remains!” Cheney and find myself singing along joyfully. But I see what the other reviewers are getting at – “Judy is Your Viet Nam” describes a romance gone totally pear-shaped, but it does so in a ninety second blast of pure pop awesomeness that blows by so fast you might escape without considering what it’d be like to have a relationship that’s accurately analogous to arguably the dumbest war America ever fought (which, you know, is saying something. Other contenders include World War I, Korea, and Iraq). It would be a fucking nightmare, but in They Might Be Giants’ song, it’s entertaining as hell.
As nerdcore pioneers, They Might Be Giants have enjoyed a loyal fan-base for decades now and they’re under no pressure to go back to the gold sounds of Flood. But Join Us doesn’t escape branding as a “return to form” (the A.V. Club employed the term “corrective”), probably in large part because the Johns have been dabbling in children’s albums off and on for the ten years that have passed since Mink Car. While I do hate the phrase “return to form,” I also reserve the right to contradict myself and qualify my assertions half to death. Perhaps I’m a real critic after all. The point is that from the beginning of Join Us to the end, They Might Be Giants sound refreshed and energetic. Although I’ve enjoyed albums between Mink Car and the new one, I don’t listen to them with any regularity. While Join Us has a couple of weak spots in its armor (closer “You Don’t Like Me” doesn’t stand up all that well to the rest of the album), they are few and far between. “When Will You Die” and “Judy is Your Viet Nam” are instant They Might Be Giants classics that will fit on your mix CD (no doubt compiled to woo some non-nerd friend of yours to the They Might Be Giants/ Jonathan Coulton show) next to “Birdhouse in Your Soul,” “Particle Man,” “I Hope That I Get Old Before I Die,” “Ana Ng,” and “Working Undercover for the Man.”
Of course, if you’re already one of They Might Be Giants’ detractors (I’ve known a few in my day), Join Us will not win you over – Flansburgh still has a nasal, honking voice that you will either love or hate and some of the songs can be a little arbitrarily weird – “Cloisonné” comes to mind. But hey – “I’ve Got a Fang” is one of my favorite They Might Be Giants songs. Also, I was once very sick in college and had a fever dream on my couch while my roommate was listening to their cover of XTC’s (I mean the Dukes of Strasophear’s) “25 o’clock.” So that song has a special place in my heart too. And, lest you be confused, I’m not suggesting that Join Us will be unconvincing to people who are pretty new to They Might Be Giants. I was listening to “Cloisonné” this morning when my wife, who is not that well-acquainted with the band, declared that she likes them.
When I talked about Marian Call and nerdcore in general earlier this year, I mentioned that the best nerdcore is that which is not merely trumpeting its nerd cred and defying you to make fun of its collection of twenty-sided dice. That is, great nerdcore music has the opportunity to appeal to non-nerds and revels in that which it is without stressing it to the point of becoming strident. They Might Be Giants is a legendary nerdcore band because they intuitively understand this. Granted, not many non-nerds will enjoy a multi-part opus about Planet of the Apes, but the door is open for everyone with this band, which makes Join Us pretty handy as an ethos as well as an album title.