They Might Be Giants — I Like Fun
January 19, 2018
New York City, New York / Idlewild Recordings
I Like Fun is the 20th full length album by alternative rock grandfathers They Might Be Giants. A double-digit discography is enough to weather even the greatest of music’s powerhouses, and can turn their biggest fans into some of their loudest critics.
The Giants are best known for their output in the 80s and 90s with albums like Flood, or Lincoln, or John Henry, but I’ve always stood by their output since the 2000s also, like Mink Car and Nanobots. Hell, their 2016 album Phone Power was one of my favourite records of that year. For me, TMBG have been a band that consistently provide interestingly zany lyrics, electrifying instrumentation, and an overall tight sense of fun.
And Fun is the name of the game on this new album here. It’s not very often that TMBG title their projects with such an inviting concept, save for the Here Come the series, which they wrote to teach infant children about math and spelling.
I Like Fun isn’t an album for children, though. It’s definitely for the band’s usual, indiscernible demographic. The instrumentation has a familiar amount of experimentation and variety to it, and the lyrical content still has a lot of the same touchstones: inanimate objects, time, the human condition, death.
There’s actually a lot more of the latter two concepts on this project than usual; most likely because of the sociopolitical landscape becoming more like a hellscape since the release of 2016’s Phone Power. This record is probably the closest you could ever hope to come to an anti-Trump TMBG album, and it definitely skirts that line at least a couple of times here.
The album kicks off with the track “Let’s Get This Over With,” which features this jaunty piano and hand claps that do a great job of working against John Linnell’s apprehensive lyrics about getting your shit done in the face of adversity. It almost sounds like he’s been cast as the lead role of a musical that he doesn’t want anything to do with. It’s a great running start, and serves as a very pertinent precursor to the overarching themes that pin the album down.
And when you wake up you can feel your hair grow
Crawl out of your cave and you can watch your shadow
Creep across the ground until the day is done
All the while the planet circles ’round the sun
Everybody knows how this goes so let’s get over it
And let’s get this over with
“I Left My Body” is the first taste of alt-rock on the album, with this powerful guitar riff that pushes against Linnell’s vocals as he narrates his own consciousness that has literally lost its physical form. He wonders if his remains and his belongings will prove to be useful or valuable to the living, like he’s more concerned about other people than his own presumed demise. In a big way, this song is like the counterpart to 2013’s “Lost My Mind,” which has its own themes of detachment and self-worth.
The song “All Time What” has Linnell singing about how things in his life are changing faster than he can really comprehend or properly deal with. It’s not the most novel concept on the album, and it doesn’t come to any real conclusion, but it does have a pretty colourful horn section in the chorus, and it closes out with a melodic “Aah!” that represents the effervescent anxiety of this cut pretty well.
Meanwhile, the song “By the Time You Get This” is a by-the-numbers Giants song if there ever was one, with a guitar that vaguely follows the vocal melody and a few touches of synthesiser here and there. Lyrically, the song serves as a time capsule for a future millennium that humans most likely won’t survive to see.
We can’t be certain at the moment of this writing
But surely in the future there’ll be no barking dogs
The sound of crying babies will be thankfully forgotten
No more will the chattering classes make a noise
I’m similarly cold on the song “An Insult to the Fact Checkers,” which is a straightforward commentary on “fake news” culture. The instrumentation takes a far more conventional alt-rock approach than most songs here, with some overlaid guitars and less use of digital instruments, save for a synth-driven bridge that welcomes the samey second half of the track.
I do love the next track, “Mrs. Bluebeard,” though. It rides this wonky piano line that really sells the despondent nature of the lyrics, which are about feeling like you deserve better than whatever the world is giving to you.
Most people wouldn’t hang the corpses up for review
Dearest, I can only hope most people are nothing like you
That I pretended not to see
That’s how I was brought up
Death metal albums
“Hang in there, baby” poster
The title track, ironically, is one of the least vibrant tracks on the entire LP, with a slow-paced drum fill that eventually flourishes into a marching band horn chorus. Linnell sings about how he is unexpectedly good at parkour at the age of 58, which doubles as a sly humble brag about his continued showcase of musical talent after three-plus decades. Maybe this is just a warm-up act for the second half of the record, but there are certainly stronger cuts to be talking about your musical skills on.
Especially considering the quality of the album doesn’t exactly skyrocket with songs like “Push Back the Hands” and “The Bright Side”—the former of which dares to fade out after some tepid takes on wanting to turn back time to when things were better, and the latter which could land on any given generic rock album with a couple of alterations.
The record doesn’t really pick back up for me until “When the Light Comes On,” which is one of my favourite songs on the entire project. The galloping drum groove pairs gorgeously with Linnell’s descending vocals, making the song sound like it’s on a constant downward spiral towards something truly horrifying, but the band is going down swinging.
And from what I can tell
I’ll be no more than a shell
Or an automaton
But we’ll be laughing and shit
It will have been worth it
When the lights come on
The song “Lake Monsters” is the most outwardly political track here, calling US politicians monsters who are “just looking for a polling station,” or doing unspeakable things for the approval of the populace. The instrumental almost sounds like psyche rock, but the last third of the song gets slightly more jazz tinged as Linnell sings about a “mass hypnosis,” most likely intended to be a jab at Trump supporters who hang onto his every word. The electronic stabs at the end of the song serve only to ease you into the woozy instrumental of “McCafferty’s Bib,” which is probably the most esoteric track lyrically.
“The Greatest” is another highlight for me, despite its minimalistic composition and short length. Flansburgh laments about how the people in his life see him as little more than a joke, and he can’t help but feel the same way.
They call me the greatest
‘Cause I’m not very good
And they’re being sarcastic
They’re being sarcastic
The song “Last Wave” sees the whole album out, and it sees it out with some of the highest highs of the whole 40 minutes. The Johns sing about being naked and alone over this smooth Bruce Hornsby-style piano and some triumphant brass embellishments. Even with the defeatist lyrics, with this song it’s as if the band is finally standing up to all of the bullshit they’ve dealt with for the entire record. It’s all coming in like a wave, and Linnell and Flansburgh are rocking out as it washes them away.
As far as They Might Be Giants goes, this is one of their less consistent albums in my opinion, but there are certainly more hits than misses here. I Like Fun is a very particular kind of fun; it’s like spitting in the faces of your enemies and laughing as you get punched to the floor. Even if it doesn’t go down as one of my favourite TMBG records, it will go down as one of their most grandiose and ambitious concepts.
FAVOURITE TRACKS: Let’s Get This Over With / I Left My Body / Mrs. Bluebeard / When the Light Comes On / The Greatest / Last Wave