Recorded at the same Skyline studios, where they made their best-selling major label debut Flood, I Like Fun feels like a hearkening back to They Might Be Giants’ glory days of old.
TMBG fans have long learned to expect the unexpected and this their 20th album is typically eclectic, mixing and mashing genres from surf-punk to funk, college rock to avant garde jazz – often over the course of a single song.
As ever their jaunty and witty compositions belie darker themes and this album features some of the New York duo’s darkest and most world weary lyrics yet.
The two Johns, Flansburgh and Linnell, have never been afraid to confront death and disaster in their songs, but here the grim reaper looms larger than ever before, with visions of a dystopian future adding a sour aftertaste to the sweetness of their melodies.
Opener Let’s Get This One Over With is a case in point, ostensibly an almost show tune romp of piano and drums, it’s actually a pretty cynical take on the classic existential crisis.
There’s a strong sense of oppression as “like a rock” the drumbeat “crushes you as it gets louder”.
It’s a world where jobs control you and you’re left behind as the world passes you by: “You’re still hanging around the clambake/After every clam has been baked/No applause/Awkward pause/Hand extended waiting for a shake.”
The music is almost relentlessly cheerful, but what’s being expressed is icily detached – the circular lyric constantly returning to the fatalistic couplet: “Everybody knows how this goes so let’s get over it/And let’s get this over with.”
Despite the frequent stylistic changes and unusual instrumentation, the waspish, acid thread courses through the album.
I Left My Body – a piano and guitar chugger – describes a pretty bleak out of body experience, while By The Time You Get This tells of a message left for the people of 1937 by the “smiling skulls” of those that walked the Earth a millennium before.
The writers “Confidently know that you’ll enjoy a better world/When the evils that we faced/
Will at last be laid to rest,” blissfully unaware of the rise of fascism and all the horrors yet to come.
When The Lights Come On appears to depict the aftermath of an apocalypse – “See I’ve been picturing/Diagrams of master plans/I taught myself to draw in the dust/With what remains of my left hand”.
Groping around in the darkness, the unreliable narrator dreams of a time “It will have been worth it/When the lights come on”.
The B-52s-esque disco-funk of Lake Monsters sees creatures “all across America” so disgusted by the state of US politics, they drag themselves out of the water and into the polling stations to vote.
A sinister cure for all ills haunts the surreal space-rock of McCafferty’s Bib, while there’s more stone cold cynicism in The Greatest – “They call me the greatest, because I’m not very good and they’re being sarcastic”.
Despite its disquieting undercurrent, I Like Fun is by no means a joyless or dispiriting album, TMBG are way too smart for that.
There’s a guise and guile about their wordplay and they just can’t stop themselves from writing irresistibly catchy pop songs like The Bright Side and An Insult To The Fact Checkers.
Like most of their albums, the 15-songs come and go pretty fast, so if one doesn’t take your fancy, never fear, because the chances are you’ll like the next one.
While there’s nothing that quite touches the grace and gravitas of Ana Ng or Your Racist Friend, many of the songs on this record would not be out of place on their landmark early LPs.
Mrs Bluebeard is a wonderfully off-kilter reminiscence from a murder victim, while Push Back The Hands, with its insistent guitar stabs, sees the protagonist desperately trying to hold back the march of time.
The skewed indie-rock of All Time What sounds like Weezer meets Pavement – never a bad thing – while the Supertramp-sounding This Microphone features some of their sharpest and most affecting lyrics to date.
Closing track Last Wave provides a fitting summary for the whole album, a grim message wrapped up in lush layers of piano and guitar pop.
“We die alone we die afraid/We live in terror we’re naked and alone/And the grave is the loneliest place.”
- I Like Fun is out now both physically and digitally through Lojinx here
- TMBG tour Britain and Europe in Autumn 2018, starting in Port Meirion on 6 September and finishing in Dublin on 6 October.
- For more about the band visit their Facebook and Twitter sites