Album Raises New and Troubling Questions does neither. Nor does They Might Be Giants’ 16th studio release (and second this year) come off as emphatically as the title jokingly suggests. But weed out a few forgettable tracks, and the album proves the duo is still, after almost 30 years, effortlessly churning out catchy songs with strange, broadly compelling lyrics. In short, they’re answering old and mundane questions in the same new and troubling ways.
Simple and short is the rule here. Five tracks into the album comes a wisp of a tune that’s shaking off a heavy heart. “Now I Know” clocks in at only one minute and 35 seconds, yet it sums up in its unsung context the moment when regret pricks and deflates the ego: “It’s the red wire/I see that now.” What or who exploded with the snip of the blue wire, we’ll never know. All the guy can say now is “Now I know.” There’s a bitter pill of regret in those three simple words. Why sing more?
Finely tuned now after a decade of writing for children, the silly side to John Flansburgh and John Linnell’s songwriting is still a delight (and invokes the drummer of the band, Marty Beller) with this refrain: “I’m steaming up the inside of my Marty Beller mask/’Cause I’m really Whitney Houston on the drums.”
But this mix of otherwise mismatched songs skews darker or at least bittersweet. “Mountain Flowers” jitters about mysterious messages in clouds and wilted blossoms. “Doppelgangers of They” squawks out that sort of Ween-like weirdness that purges the brain–and ultimately works.
The album would end so well with “Havelina”, a cinematic instrumental that swirls upward like smoke, still sparking from the fire, but instead it continues for another 15 nice-but-inessential minutes of live recordings and re-recordings, including 43 seconds of pomp and circumstance about “200 Sbemails” and a cover of Chumbawumba’s “Tubthumping”. That cover was one of the best in the “A.V. Club Undercover” series (how can you not smile seeing a whole office of people singing along?), but it’s frivolous on this album.
Essential Tracks: “Now I Know”, “How Now Dark Cloud”, and “Havelina”