They Might Be Giants have always succeeded at lyrical dissonance. Fun, bright, upbeat melodies lift up darker lyrics about shipwrecks, cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face, and the realization that you’ll never be part of the world of someone you want to care about. Even songs where the lyrics are supposed to be meaningless, such as “Don’t Let’s Start” carry a smidge of the depressed. The newest album from the band, I Like Fun, takes that facet of John Linnell and John Flansburgh’s songwriting style and just runs with it, blending darkness with brightness to give a final product that carries all the hallmarks of the band’s upbeat yet slightly morbid style.
Make no mistake: these lyrics are DARK. The songs deal with things like the fable of Bluebeard’s wives, a possible end of the world scenario, and various scenarios of disassociation. And these dark lyrics are played completely straight but set against the fun poppy college radio sound of the album’s music. There isn’t much new variation to the sound of the album, but I’m perfectly fine with that. They Might Be Giants have spent over twenty years crafting this fun, bright, eccentric sort of sound that characterizes all of their albums. It’s on full display in I Like Fun, which feels like it could sit comfortably in rotation next to their earlier work. Despite the differing tones of various songs, there’s an overall unified mood: bright. This is a happy-sounding album, as They Might Be Giants take everything at a moderate pace, usually with an upbeat tempo, perky horns, and other signs of lightness: handclaps, chimes, tightly done harmonies, etc. Strong percussion helps push the brightness and, well, fun of the album.
This is how you end up with something like “Last Wave,” the last song of the album, one of the first singles released off the album, and (in my mind) the most indicative of what the album’s like as a whole. It is an amazingly happy song. There’s a bright-sounding saxophone, a drum solo, a general uplifting and fun mood throughout the whole piece, which also features a call and response section to the lyrics “we die alone / we die afraid.” It’s intensely pessimistic when one looks at the lyrics but the bright and optimistic sound helps move the song past that. The contrast is beautiful and tightly plotted, putting a final touch of fun and spirit on the album as a whole.
Sonically, the album is somehow unified and all over the place. Certain songs stand out: the jaunty piano backing of “Mrs. Bluebeard” is followed by the stark minimalism of “I Like Fun.” “I Like Fun” feels the most out of place. The song plays with silence, sometimes having only a drum beat accompany John Flansburgh’s voice before there’s a peal of horns. On a first listen, the song stands out in a stark, distant manner. But relistening to the album and putting it in context makes the song feel more unified and tied into the work as a whole. Still, it’s an odd choice to release as a first single and one with a video for.
All in all, this is an amazingly charming album. They Might Be Giants bring the spark and joy to I Like Fun as they do all of their projects, putting out music that’s quirky, zany, and enjoyable for everyone to listen to while not backing away from darker, more atonal lyrics. Give it a chance if, as the title suggests, you like fun. You won’t be disappointed.