My journey into They Might Be Giants fandom didn’t really begin in earnest until I was in high school. Sure, I’d heard their music here and there, but beyond thinking of them as the band with the accordion (that wasn’t Weird Al), I hadn’t paid much attention.
What change all of that was my friend James. James was a guy I started hanging out with when I was a freshman, though he was a year older. James was a guy who was into the kind of things I was into, but was somehow (as far as I was concerned) just doing it better. James not only loved video games and introduced me to things like Ultima, but he was trying to make his own video games. James didn’t just play D&D, he was putting together his own LARP to run his own real-life adventures. It seemed pretty clear to me at the time that if James liked something, I should probably pay attention to it.
And when it came to music, James like They Might Be Giants.
We grew up in the countryside – not the middle of nowhere by any stretch, but remote enough that when you wanted to go hang out at somebody else’s house it was probably a twenty minute drive through pastoral farmland and forests.
I spent a lot of time in James’s jeep, jaunting back and forth across that countryside on our way to some adventure or another, and on most occasions the soundtrack to those adventures was TMBG.
As I mentioned last time, this was already the early 90s and TMBG had been around for a good many years. While Flood or Apollo 18 might have been the dominant albums, my drive to learn more about TMBG led me back to the beginning: Pink.
Well, not actually Pink. The album was really just called They Might Be Giants, but James (and everyone else, it seems) referred to it by its color.
To be honest, I didn’t like Pink.
Compared to the more pop-y sounds of the more recent albums, their first outing sounded rough. It was all over the place musically, and there were a few songs I would just straight-up fast-forward when they came on. There were a few tracks I loved, but those just sometime weren’t worth the effort of putting in the cassette.
So, it’s kind of natural that as the years have gone by, I’d say this is the album (and the tracks) I’ve most let slip away into the depths of time. It’s also why the idea of revisiting it now filled me with a mix of trepidation and curiosity; would I be facing this with a more mature viewpoint now, or would it still be something I would’ve been happier to leave in the past?
Beginning At the Beginning
I can say with confidence that I do not know the exact mindset of a record producer in the mid 1980s. I do not know the marketing concerns, I do not know the sales goals they were targeting, and I most definitely do not know their artistic sensibilities.
But, as a casual observer, I would think that with the debut album of a new band – right from the very first track – you would want to come on strong.
Pink kicks off with “Everything Right is Wrong Again”, and to this day I still can’t decide if it hits that mark. This was one of those songs I would skip without fail when I was a teenager. There’s no question it opens with a punch – the two chord sting driving into the titular lyric can’t help but draw your attention. It keeps up a rapid pace, driving along at a steady beat until the back half of the song where it slows down into the slow, semi-distorted vocal portion. From there it ramps back up and drives unceasingly to the end.
It’s a tough song to follow, and even after all of these years I’m still not entirely sure what all of the lyrics are (flo-top face?). Yet, despite that, after listening to this album multiple times while writing this article, this is the song I find myself singing to myself. It may not make sense, it may not be complex, but there is no denying it is infectiously catchy. So in that regard, maybe it does exactly what it needs to as the lead-off on a debut album.
One thing to note is that the shift into a strange vocal break is a hallmark of Pink. The majority of songs on the album feature at least one section that plays on the gimmick, to varying levels of success.
Everything Right gives way to “Put Your Hand Inside the Puppet Head”, which is pretty universally considered a TMBG classic. I always enjoyed it as a teen, and though it has managed to fade off of my usual playlists, it’s still a joy to come back to. As an interesting point of trivia, “Puppet Head” is the first song TMBG produced a video for:
In a lot of ways, the video for “Puppet Head” stands as a microcosm of the album as a whole. It’s peppy, it’s weird, and it’s a bit of a pastiche of random elements. Pink, as a whole, is an unquestionably eclectic experience. That’s both in terms of the genres TMBG touch on during the course of the album, but also in the overall tone. From the faux-country feel of “Alienation’s for the Rich” to the whatever you would define “I Hope That I Get Old Before I Die” as, Pink is a sampler plate of sound. If you were to jump back to 1986 and try and define TMBG from this album, I don’t know that you could. The album feels like a stitching of disparate pieces together into a tenuous whole.
A lot of people cite “Don’t Let’s Start” as being emblematic of the TMBG “sound”, and I would agree with that. However, that’s all in hindsight. I think that’s part of why Pink never resonated with me back then, because it was still a few steps removed from what they eventually developed into. This was still two guys with a drum machine and a bunch of synthesizers; the compared to the fuller instrumentation of Apollo 18 that I leaned towards, this was a more unrefined sound.
Diving Back In
Coming back to it now after such a long break, I find it not nearly as grating as a I remember. The synth is still synth, but there is a richer complexity to the songs than I gave credit way back when. The genre shifts are constant, but not the irritation I used to think they were. If anything, it’s the bellwether of everything that would come after. Sure, there may be a TMBG sound, but as we’ll see in the next three decades of albums there is never-ending experimentation to go along with it.
Pink is fun, plain and simple. Bouncing across a sonic landscape with no map in particular, each track takes you in a strange new direction. One moment you’ll have the driving saxophone of “Hotel Detective”, the next you’ll have pulsing pop feel of “Rhythm Section Want Ad”.
Taken as a whole, there is an over-reliance on the distorted vocal bridge that I mentioned earlier, perhaps no more egregious than in “Hide Away Folk Family”, which wraps up the second half of the song by playing the first half in reverse. I didn’t like it then, and I still don’t like it now. Some of the tracks are still interesting, but ultimately not ones I’d come back to with any regularity (looking at you, “Rabid Child”).
Yet, it was also a reminder of some of my favorite tracks I’d put aside for many, many years. “She’s An Angel” (which we’ll come back to in a later entry) and “Rhythm Section Want Ad” are fantastic compositions that, for me at least, were forgotten in the long shadows of material yet to come. It felt good to finally give Pink a long overdue second chance, and to know that my finger won’t be so quick to hit the fast-forward button in the future.
Next Time: Onward to 1988 and Lincoln, which I’ve since learned had an entirely different meaning than I previously thought.