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After three decades, most bands with the prolific output and rabidly devoted fanbase of They Might Be Giants would be forgiven for throwing up their hands, and resting on their laurels for a while. But They Might Be Giants is, of course, not most bands. And their twentieth album I Like Fun (★★★★), accompanied by the latest iteration of their iconic Dial-A-Song service, seems designed from beginning to end to remind us of that fact.
While their style and sound have changed and evolved, in many ways they have remained remarkably consistent over three decades, bringing a combination of precise, airtight songwriting, an absurd sense of humour, and the sensibility of easily-bored workaholics. From their beginning, the duo of John Linnell and John Flansburgh have struck that rare balance of being unabashedly weird and quirky on the one hand, yet completely accessible on the other.
One of the more surprising features of I Like Fun is that it flirts with subtext, double meaning, and some decidedly grim themes, more so than their last decade or so of producing children’s music for Disney might have led us to expect from them. The songs waver between vague postmodern gloom and stark descriptions of death and dismemberment, albeit dressed up in bright pop melodies, upbeat piano and guitar lines, and vocal harmonies. The contradictions may be jarring, but they are presented in such an enjoyable package, it’s hard not to be impressed by it all.
I Like Fun is as well-crafted an album as any of their work, and just as easy to enjoy. The self-referential, almost absurdly literal opening track “Let’s Get This Over With” is one of their catchiest songs in years, opening with a lyric about the predictable consistency of the song’s own bass drum line. Oddly enough, the bass drum doesn’t return — they are far too busy playing with synths, brass, guitars, saxophones, and Beach Boys vocal melodies.
The way the album fluctuates between many different sounds is somewhat manic, but it works here. One of the few exceptions is the title track, a surprisingly somber, low-key interlude relative to the rest of the album. They Might Be Giants are experienced and talented enough to pull off just about anything at this point and not every aspect of the album is uniquely memorable. Tracks like the opener and “Push Back The Hands” are standouts that will inevitably make listeners wish for more.
Nothing about the album sticks out as wrong or out of place. The inconsistencies of I Like Fun are minor, made up for by some fantastic songwriting, unsurprising from TMBG. The otherwise forgettable title track contains one key moment worth focusing on. It closes out with the lines, “I like fun/And so do you/As we float away/So do you.” It’s by no means the most unusual or memorable wordplay they’ve ever produced, but it works on several levels, as a moment of connection with listeners, an idle thought on the passage of time, and most of all as a simple lyrical construction that fills the space it needs to fill. It may not be enough to bring over the uninitiated, but for longtime fans and newer converts, the casual, unpretentious cleverness will be a reminder of why they fell for They Might Be Giants in the first place.
Few artists could pull off an album with subject matter so bleak on its face and yet so worthy of the title I Like Fun. It is often hard to tell whether it’s meant to be joy tinged with irony or simple joy in the face of a background radiation of impending doom and existential despair. A band like They Might Be Giants was all but destined to attract the near-fanatical cult following that has long poured over their songs on message boards, forums and Reddit threads, picking apart the lyrics for double meanings and easter eggs. Looking for this hidden layer misses what has been on the surface the whole time a group of incredibly talented and easily bored artists out to have as much fun with their craft as they possibly can.
I Like Fun is available now to buy on Amazon.com and iTunes, and through streaming services.
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