Lincoln has more than its fair share of songs that demonstrate that TMBG’s irreverence and oblique wordplay is usually gesturing at something quite poignant.
In a career that’s spanned over 30 years, it’s astonishing that They Might Be Giants’ “Ana Ng,” the opening track and lead single from their sophomore album Lincoln, has maintained its status as not only the pinnacle of John Linnell and John Flansburgh’s catalogue but also as one of the most unassailable gems of underground music. This is essentially a love song for a simulacrum of a person who never even makes an appearance. It’s a collection of side-long glances that capture the way desire manifests itself in life’s tiniest details and missed connections: A warm yet empty bench in the DuPont pavilion, fragmentary memories of the ‘64 World’s Fair, an anonymous love letter scrawled on the side of a bridge, all spliced together and centered around a name picked out of the phone book. Linnell’s knotty melody winds tightly around the sharp, punchy interplay of the rhythm guitar and a strummed dulcimer while an accordion shimmers beneath the surface. In a way, the song embodies everything that makes Lincoln such a special moment in the band’s sprawling discography.
While on the platinum-selling Flood the Johns would go on to craft a more robust and colorful sound palette, there’s something delightfully churlish about how bright and brittle Lincoln’s songs are. This is due in part, of course, to their infamous synthetic rhythm section courtesy of an Alesis HR-16 drum machine. But these 18 songs are far from robotic. On “The World’s Address” Flansburgh crafts a more than danceable salsa tune as he explores his “Sad pun that reflects a sadder mess,” and on “Where Your Eyes Don’t Go” Linnell attends to a metaphysical crisis in an elliptical, swaying 6/8. On the opposite end of the spectrum is the chaotic, arrhythmic “You’ll Miss Me,” perhaps the most discordant song the band has ever recorded. Off-key saxophones ricochet off one another to create an unsettling squall—a reminder that TMBG were active in the same New York scene as bands like James Chance and the Contortions, Swans and Lydia Lunch.
They Might Be Giants often get pegged as merely a novelty act or a comedy band, but Lincoln has more than its fair share of songs that demonstrate that their irreverence and oblique wordplay is usually gesturing at something quite poignant. While it’s not totally clear what’s happening in songs like “Piece of Dirt” or “I’ve Got a Match,” there’s no denying the simple beauty of lines like “A woman’s voice on the radio can convince you you’re in love/ A woman’s voice on the telephone can convince you you’re alone” or “I’ve got a match, your embrace, and my collapse.”
Take “Snowball in Hell,” one of Flansburgh’s finest songs. While his voice is usually somewhat unwieldy, he sounds like a crooner singing of avalanches, roadblocks, a jailer trapped in his cell. His wildly imaginative writing is often intentionally overblown, but here he strikes on something gentle and breezy, puns and clichés lacking a clear agenda. At times, the song has the feel of a parable; the aphorisms pile up and seem to want to point somewhere, at some moral or lesson, but instead we hear his words as strange combinations of signifiers whose meanings bleed into one another, leaving us with an odd watercolor of nonsense. So when we reach the sample of two men talking about sales and efficiency (“Back on that old ‘Time is Money’ kick, right?/ Not back on it Joe, still on it“) the mundanity of the exchange is made wonderfully alien by association.
It’s easy to put the band on an idiosyncratic pedestal. Given the unexpected success of Flood and the songwriters’ genuinely original style, you get the impression that they appeared as if from nowhere and sounded unlike anyone else. But buying into that impression would be doing them a great disservice. If Lincoln shows us anything, it’s that, especially at the beginning of their career, They Might Be Giants were very much a product of their time and place. They synthesized the synthetic bliss that dominated the pop charts and the surly chaos of their art-rock peers, all with a ruthless, jubilant intelligence. Perhaps it would be better to say that They Might Be Giants came from everywhere and sounded like everything—i.e.: exactly like themselves.