There is no middle ground with They Might Be Giants.
There is no middle ground with They Might Be Giants. Either you passionately insist that “Birdhouse in Your Soul” is one of the best pop songs ever recorded or you only vaguely remember hearing the peppy melody on some ancient late-night radio show featuring obscure alternative music. TMBG has released 14 more albums since then but none have ever really made the same impact of its 1990 breakout, Flood. One wonders whether the band has been able to hold on to even its most fervent fans, and its latest release, I Like Fun, leaves more room for doubt.
In early April, 2017, TMBG began recording its first album since 2016’s Phone Power. Despite 15 tracks of bright and fresh pop rock with a moderate energy level and occasional melodramatic harmonies, the band seems to have trouble committing to anything other than what they know. Suggesting an awkward guy at a party that you really want to like, the band ventures into progressive and hopeful territory but inevitably reveals its social incompatibility. TMBG is trying to be serious here, but it doesn’t work, because it’s not a serious band.
TMBG makes positive, quirky, music for the sort of people who smile and chuckle at a joke and then retell it to people who care less. It’s quaint, amusing, and sometimes even catchy but not the sort of thing that begs repeat listens. Its songwriting talent is clear right from the perfectly fine opener “Let’s Get this Over With”. You might be inspired to clap along politely because your friend is making eye contact with you as they excitedly mouth the words. If you ask your friend whether the band is really serious, they’ll play you “I Left my Body” to prove that there’s more depth and drama than you’re giving them credit for. But there isn’t. The instrumentation is tight, the melodies carry and hook when they need to and the production quality is spot-on. So why isn’t it great?
“When the Lights Come On” features an unfailing boxcar rhythm which holds promise but the melody is all over the map and the patterns keep changing. Linnell holds to a deeper, more serious tone on this one but as such it just sort of rides along in a groove of mediocrity on its way to “Lake Monsters.” This is what would happen if a parlor jazz band met up with a new wave act and crooned out narrative, but eventually changes both tempo and instrumentation transforming its slight charms into something noisy and vaguely annoying.
They Might Be Giants are doing what it’s always been doing, but this time they just don’t nail anything. It’s hard to imagine anyone picking out a highlight and saying, “Have you heard that great new track from They Might Be Giants?” The band delivers a lot of cute, a lot of quirk and a lot of oddball songwriting, but despite its title, I Like Fun is a serious disappointment.