They Might Be Giants’ Dial-a-Song fueled album extravaganza concluded at the beginning of this year with Phone Power, and while it was a decent album, I found my attention drifting a lot when listening to it for this review. TMBG has yet to make a truly bad album, and that hasn’t changed. But there just wasn’t anything that stood out about this one to me.
Sure, the album has its moments. “ECNALUBMA” has an energetic and fun chorus where John Linnell is in his best singing form. The vocals are very much in sync with the drum and guitar parts, and that propels it forward. The lyrics of “Trouble Awful Devil Evil” are probably the most interesting, describing someone in deep denial. Several of the songs also recall classic TMBG fare. “Got Getting Up So Down” recalls “Pencil Rain” on their second album Lincoln, and “Shape Shifter” blends echoes of “Robot Parade” (from No!) and “Hopeless Bleak Despair” (from Mink Car).
But sometimes, the hearkening back to old material succeeds too well. As the guy that got me into this band once said, “The beauty of They Might Be Giants’ songs is that they make no sense.” While that’s certainly true, most of their songs are at least catchy, energetic, and/or interesting enough that the nonsensical lyrics add to the fun. Here, though, several songs strayed from the formula. “What Did I Do to You?” and “Impossibly New” are two examples of this. The latter song even gets a little hard on the ears as the synthesizer part climbs into the higher register. “Apophenia” and “I Love You for Psychological Reasons” are much more straightforward, but just don’t grab me like some songs on the first two albums of this trilogy did.
That said, sometimes they break the mold effectively, such as in the Destiny’s Child cover “Bills, Bills, Bills,” when they turn an R&B hit into a sludgy guitar-driven rock song, probably the closest they ever get to metal. They follow that up with a remix of “Black Ops” a song off their 2013 album Nanobots, which is much faster and more guitar-driven than the original. Again, this is one of their most unambiguously rockin’ songs, which is a rarity for them. These also provide some cool drum and bass moments that also occur on “Apophenia” and “I Am Alone,” among others, proving that the musicians supporting John & John are just as integral to their success as the founders themselves.
All of this adds up to an album that is profoundly average considering the high bar They Might Be Giants has set, and the least impressive of the triad. I’m going to give it a borrow it because it’s worth listening to once and then saving your favorite tracks (unless you’re me and will listen to just about everything TMBG puts their name to). But the whole thing feels like the Johns just ran out of ideas near the end of the Dial-a-Song project, and fell back on familiar patterns. Here are my track picks:
“Bills, Bills, Bills”