Album Review of "I Like Fun" by They Might Be Giants

Is There a Dark Side to They Might Be Giants?

What happens when the troubling zeitgeist of our time catches up with the world's most beloved fun-time band. 

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Album Review Podcast - Show Notes
I Like Fun

Learn more about TMBG, John Flansburgh, and John Linnell, listen to I Like Fun, and read additional reviews.

Listen to I Like Fun

Is There a Dark Side to They Might Be Giants?
"I Like Fun" Album Review

This is a transcript of Ep. 19 of the What's This Album About? podcast

BOBBY: Alright, Linda, I want to start this episode with a big reveal for our audience. Can you guess what it is?

LINDA: You record your podcast with your pants off?

BOBBY: Thanks for outing me. I wasn't ready to reveal that yet. It's that you and I are married. 

LINDA: When were you going to tell me this? 

BOBBY: We've never mentioned it before because it's never really mattered.

LINDA: Why does it matter now? 

BOBBY: Because, when you're married to someone, you learn all kinds of little things about them, including the songs they sing around the house all the time. So I've gotta ask you, Linda, of all the bands in the world, whose songs do I sing around the house most? 

LINDA: Easy! They Might Be Giants. And coincidentally, that's who we're reviewing today. 

BOBBY: We are! They have a brand-new album called I Like Fun. Let's take a look at it. 

           ♪  But that's my fun
                 And I like fun

LINDA: Before we start talking about the new album, let's just remind our listeners who They Might Be Giants is because I think most of us have heard their music. 

BOBBY: True, for example, one of their best-known recordings is the theme to Malcolm in the Middle. You know that one. 

LINDA: Oh, (sings) you're not the boss of me now...

BOBBY: Yea, that one. They also recorded the theme to the Daily Show. You know that one (sings the melody). And from their albums, probably the best-known one is this one: 

           ♪  Istanbul was Constantinople
                 Now it's Istanbul, not Constantinople
                 Been a long time gone, Oh Constantinople
                 Now it's Turkish delight on a moonlit night

BOBBY: That's They Might Be Giants' cover of the old 1950s  song, Istanbul. And their most famous original is probably this one: 

           ♪  Not to put too fine a point on it
                 Say that I'm the only bee in your bonnet
                 Make a little birdhouse in your soul

BOBBY: That's Birdhouse in Your Soul from their 1990 album, Flood. So let me ask you, Linda, since you've gotten a lot of second-hand exposure to They Might Be Giants over the years, how would you describe TMBG? 

LINDA: Goofy, fun, absurd. I love that they do songs about obscure presidents...

BOBBY: (sings) "Mr. James K. Polk, our eleventh president!"

LINDA: and about how the sun works. 

BOBBY: (sings) "The sun is a mass of incandescent gas, a gigantic nuclear furnace!" They are the ultimate nerd band. 

LINDA: Yes. So, when I saw the title of this album, I Like Fun, and I read the song titles, I kind of expected more of the same. 

BOBBY: That title definitely sets you up for thinking that it's going to be another wacky TMBG album. 

LINDA: But if you dig a little deeper, (whispers) not so fun!

BOBBY: There's a lot of darkness on this album that might be a change of pace for long-term They Might Be Giants fans. 

LINDA: But let's be clear that that change of pace is not apparent in the sound of this album...

BOBBY: No, it's still wacky fun!

LINDA: but if you dig into the lyrics, there's a lot of imagery of being in caves, in shadows, living in the dark, being blind - almost as if we're in the Dark Ages. 

BOBBY: So let's do this. Let's look at the ways that I Like Fun is like a standard They Might Be Giants album, and then let's look at the ways it's different than most of what we've heard from TMBG. 

LINDA: Let's do it! 

BOBBY: Alright, let's start with They Might Be Giants as usual. Linda, you mentioned before that this band is often absurdist, and there's plenty of absurdism in this album. To me, the best example of that is the song, McCafferty's Bib. 

           ♪  They're massing in public squares and they're singing
                 A note that rises from low to high
                 With one hand their holding up signs of Bob Hope
                 In the other hand, everyone's waving McCafferty's Bib

BOBBY: So, you and I have been to some protests, and certainly seen a lot on the news, and I've never seen one person holding up a sign of Bob Hope. What is going on there? 

LINDA: We Googled the shit out of that one and nothing came up for McCafferty's Bib. 

BOBBY: And not even McCafferty. We looked up McCafferty to see if something would make sense to us, and maybe it's out there, but according to my current level of understanding, it just sounds like really well-crafted absurdism tempered with humor. And, by the way, humor is another one of those things we always expect to hear on TMBG albums. My favorite example of that is a song called The Greatest. 

           ♪  They call me the greatest because I'm not very good and they're being sarcastic

And, of course, there's all the other stuff you expect to hear on a They Might Be Giants album - you got great musical arrangements, unexpected melodic twists, and very unconventional instrumentation, such as the oboe you hear on the title track, I Like Fun. In all, when you listen to this album, it's really clear that you're listening to a TMBG album, and yet, as you and a lot of critics have mentioned, this is a much darker album than the band usually puts out. 

LINDA: And the band members themselves confirmed this in an interview on Google Talks, when they were asked about the darkness of the album, they said that they were, indeed, caught up in the zeitgeist of our time.             

BOBBY: So, they're acknowledging that this is very much an album of where we are right now, 2018. And they're caught up in that spirit. And yet, in that same interview, they also said that they don't feel that this is a topical album. And I do want to respect their vision of this not being a topical album, but I do think that there are some songs on it that at least border on topical. 

LINDA: I have to agree with you there. 

BOBBY: So, let's look at some of the more zeitgeist-y songs first. First of all, there are plenty of songs that are just generally dark, like The Bright Side. 

           ♪  The bright side is just a white lie
                 That the crowd keeps singing, singing

Which seems to be a criticism of optimism in light of the fact that things aren't so great. And then there's the last song, The Last Wave, which goes like this: 

           ♪  We die alone, we die afraid, we live in terror,
                 We're naked and alone, and the grave is the loneliest place

Clearly, lyrically, a bit of a downer. So there are these generally dreary songs on this album, but there are also a few that specifically seem to ask us to look at the times that we live in. One of those is By The Time You Get This.

           ♪  By the time you get this note, we'll no longer be alive

By The Time You Get This is written as the words from a time capsule that was buried over a thousand years ago and intended to be read by people in 1937. 

           ♪  Greetings to everyone in 1937

The writer of the message in the time capsule congratulates the people of 1937 for living in a time that is no doubt better than the time the capsule was written in. 

           ♪  You're probably too busy rejoicing in the present
                 To stop and be reminded on the dark and trouble past

But of course, 1937 wasn't all that wonderful. We were in the midst of a great international depression at that time. People were starving all over the place. There was no work to be had. Hitler was already in power in Germany and was beginning his racist campaign. But the big twist in this entire song is that it's not the people of 1937 who are receiving this message, it's us! And so the implicit message is that yes, even we can look and see that hey, you who wrote this capsule, you who believed in this notion of human progress - you're just plain mistaken. It's still not so great. 

LINDA: And there's also the song When The Lights Come On, which is talking about a time of darkness, and people looking forward to that time being over, and things getting better again. 

           ♪  It might be too soon to say this, but I think that we may just see the lights come on

BOBBY: It's funny you should mention that song because that song, When The Lights Come On, is the one song on this album that I look at as kind of being halfway between a kind of general zeitgeist, general dark times song, and maybe even being a little more topical because although to me the song as a whole does't sound very topical, there were a few little words that made me go "huh, I wonder," such as this one: 

           ♪  They tampered with the smoke alarm

So they're singing about what led us to these dark times, and the word that is used is "tampered." And that's a word that is specifically used to discuss interfering with elections, which our current president has been accused of. And then there's this line: 

           ♪  And from what I can tell, groping around, there's something else

Groping. And groping is another thing that our current president has been accused of. 

LINDA: And on a completely different note within that same song, in the very last line, they do mention opiates. 

           ♪  Prescription pads for opiates

Possibly a reference to the current opioid crisis. 

BOBBY: Lots of 2018 buzzwords there. Another song I thought might be alluding to things that are actually happening in the news, is the song Bluebeard's Wife. 

           ♪  Trusted you. I should have never trusted you.

Bluebeard's Wife was written from the perspective of somebody who married Bluebeard, who is a legendary figure who married women and then brutally murdered them, hung their corpses up, and then remarried and then went through the same cycle over and over again. 

           ♪  Most people wouldn't hang the corpses up for review
                 Dearest, I can only hope most people are nothing like you

And maybe this isn't a topical song, after all, They Might Be Giants are big history fans. Maybe they're just writing a song about the legend of Bluebeard. But is does seem more than just a coincidence that the band wrote this song about the abuses women face at the same time that the #metoo and #timesup movements are so big. 

           ♪  Is this what supposed to happen when you're only trying to do right in this wicked world?
                 Probably I should already know this, probably I should graciously accept what I get

LINDA: And then there's the song Insult to the Fact Checkers. 

           ♪  You suspiciously incorporate some far-fetched fiction you find so sublime
                 But it's too late to reject it and it's an insult to the fact checkers

BOBBY: Fact-checking is another thing that's been in the news a lot the past year or so. We've got a president whose critics are constantly challenging the voracity of what he says, and who in turn, is constantly referring to their challenges as fake news. 

LINDA: But to me, one of the most topical songs on this album is the song Lake Monsters. 

           ♪  You might be asking yourself what happened to this world? 
                  But they're not ashamed, they cannot be tamed

BOBBY: So we find ourselves asking what happened to this world. And there's reference to these people here who are not ashamed. While they're called lake monsters, I think it's really a metaphor, these lake monsters who are not ashamed and can't be tamed. And who are these lake monsters? Let's listen to this verse: 

           ♪  Lake monsters of the USA
                 Just looking for a polling station
                 If it takes the cloak of darkness
                 Their voices will be counted

So they're lake monsters of the USA. They're not just any monsters, they're from the USA. To me the really big giveaway line here is that they're looking for a polling station because they want their voices to be counted. It sounds a whole lot to me like Trump's supporters, especially the ones who are openly racist like members of the Ku Klux Klan and the neo-Nazis, saying we won't be silent anymore. They've been on the news a lot and I think it's especially that line about the cloak of darkness that seems to invoke the idea of the Klan. So this song, to me, is... I want to honor TMBG, I just love them so much. They say it's not a topical album, but boy does this song make me wonder otherwise. 

LINDA: Okay, how about one more. Let's listen to the song Let's Get This Over With. 

           ♪  After all the spelling mistakes
                 After all the groping in the dark
                 Can this page of strange gibberish
                 Get a final punctuation mark?

BOBBY: So, there's that word groping again and we also have reference to spelling mistakes, and well, who's really famous for making lots of spelling mistakes and also for groping? 

LINDA: And covfefe!

BOBBY: It really does seem like that's who they're talking about. Well, there we have it. It may or may not be a topical album, but it is certainly an album of 2018 -- They Might Be Giants' I Like Fun. 

LINDA: It's the happiest downer you'll listen to all year long. 

BOBBY: That it is! I'm Bobby Waller, thanking you again for listening to What's This Album About? 

LINDA: And I'm Linda Easton, reminding you to check your spelling. And keep your ears open because the more you listen,

BOBBY: the more you love.

           ♪   Everybody knows how this goes
                  So let's get over it
                  And let's get this over with