Sunday, February 14, 2010

Rock Bottom: They Might Be Giants

The one constant in every established artist's oeuvre is the bad album, the one that's reviled by both fans and critics. Those unlovable albums are the ones this feature, Rock Bottom, is concerned with.

Here's how it works: I've consulted two main sources, the AllMusic Guide (for
the critical point-of-view) and Amazon.com (for the fan perspective*). The album with the lowest combined rating from both sources is the one I'll consider the worst. Rolling Stone serves as a tiebreaker in many cases. I may not always agree with the choice, and my reviews will reflect that. I'll also offer a considered alternative. Finally, there are some limits. The following types of albums don't count: 1) b-sides or remix compilations, 2) live albums, 3) albums recorded when the band was missing a vital member, and 4) forays into a different genres (i.e. classical).

*A note about Amazon.com. I consider this the fan perspective, because most people who choose to review albums on this site are adoring fans of the artist in question.

* * *

Pop duo They Might Be Giants are up to their quirky ways again.

Consider that in the several Rock Bottom features I've done I've never seen more dissonance among my three sources than I have in the case of They Might Be Giants. Amazon.com fans apparently love all of TMBG's albums, but the two lowest-rated (at 4 out of 5 stars each) are 2004's The Spine and 2007's The Else. The All Music Guide can't even decide among themselves. They give 1996's Factory Showroom a discography-low 2 star rating, and yet reviewer Stephen Thomas Erlewine calls it "a stronger album than its predecessor," referring to John Henry, an album the guide gives three stars and reviewer Rick Anderson calls "one of the more satisfying They Might Be Giants projects." Rolling Stone somehow manages to be even more baffling. By that magazine's ratings, Flood (1990) is the worst TMBG album, with a meager 2 star rating. That album, by the way, is the group's best-seller and contains the classics Particle Man, Istanbul (Not Constantinople), and Birdhouse In Your Soul.

So what are we to make of all this? Well, I'd dismiss Flood as a candidate outright even if it didn't have a 4 and 4.5 rating from All Music Guide and Amazon.com, respectively. Neither John Henry nor Factory Showroom have the numbers to justify Rock Bottom status. Besides, they're both personal favorites of mine. That leaves us with The Spine, the only TMBG album to receive middling reviews across the board. Can a Rock Bottom album really be one that nobody hated and nobody loved? Let's investigate.

Heather Phares' All Music Guide review of the album calls it "relatively disappointing" in light of the band's previous work. She labels it "uneven" and singles out the '30s-styled tune Stalk of Wheat for special derision: "they've never written a song about a creative drought that sounded so much like a creative drought before." On the other hand, Barry Walters' Rolling Stone write-up on the album is nearly all positive. He says The Spine finds the band "growing up without growing old" and that it sounds like they could keep going another 20 years.

As with Phares, the key word for many Amazon.com reviewers was "disappointing." Many cite a lack of oomph in the album, as well as a general decline in the band's songwriting. D. Bagatelle wrote, "Aside from the fact that it was short, which wouldn't be a complaint if the album was good, there was NOTHING on this album that was fun, funny or original. No catchy songs, No energy." Sarah adds, "The whole thing feels like their hearts weren't really in it this time."

Gareth de Korte feels TMBG have lost their direction: "They need to stop, critically reassess their songwriting formula, and just do what they want to do and to hell with everybody else." Even without a clear grasp of superlative adjective forms, Jay O. gets his point across when he writes: "Worse TMBG album, EVER!"

Without giving myself over to the cynical and cliched theory that all pop artists are destined to decline in their later years, I have to agree with the Amazon reviewers for the most part. Once a huge They Might Be Giants fan, I started to drift away with The Spine. And once we drift away from a once-beloved artist, it can be difficult find our way back. Sure, we still love the old stuff - nostalgia makes sure of that - but the new stuff is always approached with caution. In 2004 it was hard for me to quantify exactly why I didn't connect with The Spine. With perspective, it just seems like the album is missing its spark. Sure, it has some moments. Experimental Film, Prevenge, It's Kickin' In, Damn Good Times, and Broke In Two all have that certain TMBG magic.

However, other songs on the album seem almost like self-parody. If you think about it, it's a very fine line John and John walk with their sensibilities. Of course their lyrics are absurdly funny, but their best songs also have undertones of melancholy, cynicism, or philosophy. Their signature song, Birdhouse In Your Soul, is a perfect example. At first it seems like little more than evocative nonsense, but a line like, "while you're at it, leave a nightlight on inside the birdhouse in your soul" can seem fraught with meaning if it catches you in the right mood. So while we don't want deadly serious They Might Be Giants, we also don't want them grasping for laughs the way they do on songs like The World Before Later On and Au Contraire.

There's also the issue of thematic repetition. A band with a 20 year history and a certain shtick is bound to get stale sometimes. Songs like the lyrical Mobius-strip Wearing A Raincoat or I Can't Hide From My Mind are clever enough, but nothing we haven't heard before.

I read once that disappointment is the most powerful negative emotion we have. So it makes sense that an artist's worst album is often the first one that failed to meet your high expectations. For They Might Be Giants, The Spine is that moment. So it goes. As John and John themselves once sang, "If it wasn't for disappointment, I wouldn't have any appointments."

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