I feel somewhat unqualified to talk about They Might Be Giants on this site sometimes. Sure I’ve listened to all their albums, most of their non-album stuff, and have been obsessed with them more than a few times (typically whenever they come out with an album), but to this great sea of anger and frustration we call the internet, that’s simply not enough. There have been and always will be people more concerned with every little thing this band does than I will ever have the energy for.
Still, that doesn’t discourage me from plowing forward. Today we’re talking about Lincoln:
Any time I think of this album, I don’t really think of the colorful variety of sounds and styles present, not the mind-breaking bizarre lyrics, not even the abstract political and religious themes involved. Nope, when I think of Lincoln I think of basslines. Specifically, this strange synthesized slap-bass that is present on pretty much every track. It boggles the mind, I have never heard a synthesizer make a bass sound like that, and I’m not sure whether I like it or not, just that it’s there. From the opening of the first track, “Ana Ng”, it’s there in the mix, distracting me from almost anything else that’s going on. It was used a few times on the previous album, and it would be used a few times later, even with real basses on the John Henry album, but for some reason I only notice it on Lincoln.
Speaking of “Ana Ng“, it’s the first song and, in TMBG tradition, is sung by John Linnell. It features the most staccato (that means sticky) distorted guitar I’ve ever heard, in fact, if you listen to the song too loudly, it might become physically painful to hear, but fortunately the fake bass will help distract you from it. The lyrics denote a long-distance friendship or maybe relationship, and how the two people in the song live on opposite sides of the globe. It also makes some reference to the 1964 World’s Fair, and uhhh who knows. The video is particularly entertaining, as it introduces a dance craze that would hold the world captive until the song ended.
We then move on to “Cowtown” which is apparently the first song the duo ever learned how to play (Linnell had written it years previous). It’s said that the title and subject of the song is based on Ft. Worth, Tx., which is the “big city” near where I grew up, and if so, that’s lovely. It still doesn’t explain what the song is actually about, though it uses the word “Arboreality” and I can’t fault it for that.
We then move on to a song about drugs. It’s “Lie Still, Little Bottle“, and the best part of it is that the band performs it live by banging a stick against a woodblock for percussion. Yep, THAT’S the best part of the song. On the actual album, however, no stick is present, so buyer beware.
The next song is “Purple Toupee“, which is the most confused politically-charged song I’ve ever heard. It, along with the next track, “Cage & Aquarium”, are plays on the lyrics of other songs: “Purple Rain” by Prince and “The Dawning Of The Age Of Aquarius” (traditional), respectively.
We then move on to “Where Your Eyes Don’t Go”, which is one of my favorites songs on the album. The lyrics are mostly word-play, creepy imagery, and an obscure reference to pioneer rapper Kurtis Blow. None of that matters, what matters is this line:
Every jumbled pile of person has a thinking part
That wonder what the part that isn’t thinking
Isn’t thinking of
I would be lying if I said phrases like that didn’t influence me early on in my own songwriting/breakfast food selection.
The next song is a strangely straightforward depression song called “Piece Of Dirt”, which is a bit of a young disappointment, lyrically. Don’t get me wrong, the melody and instrumentation are great (and the synth bass is buried in there somewhere just inside the mix, unless that’s a saxophone), but according to legend, the “good” lyrics to this song were lost until after the song was recorded and released, so the replacement lyrics are what we have to live with. It’s really too bad, but that’s the way music goes.
Another song that makes use of wordplay is “Mr. Me”, which seems like a lame attempt to displace problems from the 1st person to an invisible 3rd person. I think we can all relate to that. It also has some incredibly low vocals, which is respectful in and of itself.
We then move on to another song called… wait a minute… “Pencil Rain”? ANOTHER ripoff of “Purple Rain”, incredible. I wonder if there’s a song called “Pencil Toupee” out there? Either way, this song is really excellent both for its arrangement (a motivational march song played in slow motion), and the use of Morse code in the bridge. How many bands do YOU know can toss out a Morse code solo?
In order to have as much variety wrapped around ugly synthesized bass as possible, the guys throw out a rarely-played-live number called “The World’s Address”, which can be better understood lyrically if you pay attention to the line “A sad pun that reflects a sadder mess”, meaning you should listen again while thinking about it like “The World’s A Dress”, then lines like “A place that’s worn” make a lot more sense. Well not a lot more, but more.
Another depressing love-lost song is “I’ve Got A Match”, and they change up the bass synth a little for this song, other than that, I have nothing to say about it.
Speaking bass synth, it’s at its most oppressive in the track “Santa’s Beard”, which is a bizarre song about a Yuletide love triangle. I think the author of this song shouldn’t worry so much about his wife cheating on Santa, his wife doesn’t even exist.
If you are particularly interested in atonal dissonance, you’d appreciate the crazed swing classic “You’ll Miss Me”, which features some great shouting by John Flansburgh. It seems to be an exercise in hitting random notes at planned intervals, but the whole thing works in a really disjointed way.
After those 3 songs, it’s probably time for a smash hit single, yes? Luckily “They’ll Need A Crane” is waiting right around the corner. This song, despite the synth bass, is really cleanly arranged and has some amazing heartbroken lyrics, particularly in the bridge:
Don’t call me at work again oh no
The boss still hates me
I’m just tired, and I don’t love you anymore
And there’s a restaurant we should check out
Where the other nightmare people like to go
I mean nice people, baby wait
I didn’t mean to say “nightmare”
It has a great video that features Linnell bouncing around like who knows, and they have a band of really old guys. Awesome!
I hesitate to use the term “dadaist” in reference to TMBG, because I fear dependence on it. However, it’s hard to call a song called “Shoehorn With Teeth” anything but. It’s a great tune though, and the band still whips it out every now and then, even if they no longer have the famous glockenspiel they used to unveil for the song’s signature 3 glockenspiel notes.
I think a song that tends to get left behind in a lot of people’s descriptions of Lincoln is the song “Stand On Your Own Head”.
The next song is possibly the first in a long line of songs that have to do with workplace despair, “Snowball In Hell”. It’s a good song, though the melody kind of makes me sad, and the synth bass isn’t even that bad in it. All is well, however, especially given that it has an excerpt from an interesting motivational tape in the bridge.
And finally, we have the religiously controversial ending, the beautiful sounding “Kiss Me, Son Of God”. The song is really just about a really bad guy with a Christ complex, and is nothing to throw a holy fit about. The band would later write a few other songs about bad guys, most notably “Reprehensible”, which would also feature old-fashioned instrumentation.
So that’s it for Lincoln. Though this album is excellent, I still feel like it’s a collection of songs designed to accommodate their stage show, but never fear! The band’s best work is yet to come…
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