The Else by They Might Be Giants
There’s a gem buried in the otherwise lackluster second half of The Else. “Withered Hope” is a piece of slick, irresistible sample-heavy funk featuring blazing Ricky Martin horns, harmonies, and unpredictable chord changes. Best of all, it’s got that TMBG trademark wit. The song begins with Sad Sack, an intentionally unspecific man—all we know is that he is “a sad bag”—who is in love with Withered Hope, a gal who doesn’t like him. When he confesses his feelings for Withered Hope, she tells him of her “soul mate in another state”. But, alas, the soul mate is in love with a crook, the crook is in love with a motorbike, and the motorbike is (somehow) in love with Sad Sack, thus completing the absurd cycle. Finally, Withered Hope’s hope withers enough that she pursues Sad Sack in desperation and, as the horn jams over that fuzzy funk, the song ends in just under three minutes. The lack of any morsel of character detail in work’s to the song’s advantage, suggesting that this isn’t a story about two people but instead an outbreak of romantic settle-for-lessism.
Ultimately, it’s a lyrical and musical lack of detail that keeps The Else from measuring up to TMBG’s better albums. “Take Out the Trash,” for instance, reveals its meaning by the second line—the trash is a jerk some girl should dump—and not really elaborated on but instead restated a few different ways over a throw-away melody. In a Paste interview about the difference between kids and adults’ responses to music, John Linnell said, “Kids are more literal. I’m not sure that they understand that “Take Out the Trash” is about your no-good boyfriend. A kid could listen to it as ‘Girl, why don’t you take out the garbage? It’s starting to smell in the kitchen.” I just wonder if Linnell isn’t giving kids enough credit.
For the producers the Dust Brothers, the album is less Odelay and more Guero: A few sonically inventive tracks, but otherwise pretty standard rock fare. “The Shadow Government” and especially “Feign Amnesia” are peppy and grating. “Contrecoup” is boring. “Climbing the Walls” and “The Cap’m” are enjoyable but offer few surprises. The Johns’ attempt to make a record that’s fun for the whole family turned it into one of the their most uneven albums in a career full of them.
Yet when TMBG turns it on for “Withered Hope” and the album’s killer opener, “I’m Impressed,” the results are thrilling and uncharacteristically stylish. The drum machine, crunchy guitar, compressed vocals on “Impressed” come together to create something eerie that rocks.
All of The Else’s strongest tracks have this in common: they don’t put carefully-enunciated vocals at the front of the mix. This wise restraint does shows up again on “Upside Down Frown,” an economical portrait of a couple’s miscommunications with over a quick, distant beat. “Careful What You Pack,” too, features a tense verse with odd noises and a big, sweeping chorus that could be snuck between “Coffee and TV” and “End of a Century” if not for the Yankee vocals.
I also recommend “With the Dark,” interesting for its many wild mood swings and claymation music video featuring the Johns as spies battling a giant squid, gun-toting squid not unlike the giant squid that fights the whale on the cover of Apollo 18.
The reason that the band appealed to kids even before TMBG began to market to them is that kids can listen to music like this for longer. They like enunciation, bright pop hooks, jokes/metaphors they can instantly recognize. Or at least I did at age eleven, when I couldn’t get enough of They Might Be Giants. They were a stepping stone in the development of my musical tastes, much like Smashing Pumpkins or the Presidents of the United States of America. But I return to these bands mostly searching for continuity between the things I liked in 6th grade and the things I like now. I’m reminded, listening to The Else’s better tracks, that when I pull out my Flood tape purely for nostalgia, I may not be giving They Might Be Giants their due.