I used to watch this quiet girl who went to my high school walk around campus during breaks. She was a small, kind of nondescript girl who wore big-ass headphones and a doofy smile on her face all the time. I liked to think that, contrary to what her serene, shy exterior suggested, she was blasting NWA or Megadeth in those headphones, but eventually I found out that she listened to They Might Be Giants, the indie dork rock band led by long-time friends John Flansburgh and John Linnell. This revelation was less funny, but more fitting; while a band like Nirvana embodies a violent, frustrated angst many teenagers can relate to, They Might Be Giants speaks to the wallflower loners who are as eclectic as they are nonthreatening. The band’s latest album, Join Us, expresses the group’s signature nerd pride with a combination of simplicity and fantasy fit for ex-losers, children and those weird kids in high school.
The album opens with “Can’t Keep Johnny Down,” an upbeat kiss-off to “all the dicks in this dick town” that showcases a nasal Billie Joe Armstrong-ish voice and sentiment with a touch of weirdness. A few songs later the Johns are harmonizing like the Beatles, then sing-talking goofy lyrics as if addressing a preschool assembly and later taking on a computerized whine. Within one song they might abruptly change vocal styles, as in “The Lady And The Tiger,” which transitions from a machine-like monotone drone à la Beck in a song like “Soul Suckin’ Jerk” to a voice that strongly resembles Cake’s John McCrea.
Join Us is a collection of short songs—only two last longer than three minutes—which allows the Johns to inhabit a range of different personalities and styles. Mostly the songs are second-person addresses like “When Will You Die” or mini-sagas like “2082,” which describes the time travels of a “person from today.” Often the lyrics seem to flirt with poetry or at least dance around it, tongue-in-cheek; in “Dog Walker,” the Johns taunt, “My mind is a wrecking ball, and someday my mind is gonna wreck y’all,” and in “Celebration” they sing of “hear[ing] the cataclysmic discharge of the optimist,” phrases that maybe don’t contain the deeper meaning they might suggest. It can be hard to follow the plot of a song’s story or any trail of crumbs They Might Be Giants plants in a song, as in “Spoiler Alert,” which layers one set of vocals over the other, both of them talking about nonsense.
The lyrics and delivery are weird the way a kid’s television program, puppet show or movie is weird: silly, occasionally imbued with meaning but often just plain goofy and outlandish. The kid-friendliness of Join Us should come as no surprise, as Flansburgh and Linnell spent the last decade writing music for kids. Join Us sounds like an album the Johns wrote to exude their post-high school angst in songs they could perform for their kids at an end-of-summer block party.
As confusing as the lyrics may be in one song, They Might Be Giants has a knack for beautifully simple writing that succinctly portrays a certain state of being or experience. A song like “You Don’t Like Me” captures and crystallizes the good-natured insecurity of being deemed not good enough in some capacity for someone’s taste with straightforward songwriting. “I know what you’re thinking, I can read your mind,” the Johns sing over a staccato guitar and drums. “In your thoughts it’s obvious, you don’t like me.” Whether fantastical and goofy or clear and direct, They Might Be Giants has a way of communicating the perspective of an outcast who’d rather be laughing from the sidelines than embroiled in the petty social politics of some dick town.