Going into this project, it did not occur to me that my gaze backwards across time would reveal a painful truth: human memory is pretty fallible. While certain songs still hold to this day crystal clear memories, some of the others are not so – shall we say – indelible.
This became abundantly clear as I dove into Lincoln, They Might Be Giant’s sophomore album. Lincoln was originally released in 1988, two years after Pink. Much like their debut, Lincoln was produced under Bar/None Records, and still featured the Johns backed by a variety of synth and drum machine.
The album – despite my long-held assumptions – was not named in any way for Abe. In hindsight there was nothing in the artwork or the songs themselves that would lead to this conclusion, but it’s what I chose to think nevertheless. What I’ve now learned is that the album is in fact named for the Johns’ hometown, Lincoln, MA.
While this is all very interesting and a good example of the flawed memory I spoke of, it’s not the primary reason this has been a journey of recollection rediscovery.
The truth is that as I sat and made my way through Lincoln‘s eighteen tracks, I realized I’ve been holding a grudge against the wrong album. When I talked last time of disliking Pink and having many of the tracks on automatic fast-forward, I was pulling up memories warped by time. My subsequent realization that Pink wasn’t as bad as I remembered was because I was remembering it wrong in the first place.
The skippable tracks… the vague, unenthusiastic memories… they were for Lincoln.
Facing Your Fears
A certain creeping dread washed over me as I looked over the track list and began to recoil at some of them. Sure, there were some longstanding favorites, but my finger also began to instinctively twitch for the skip button as I read off names like “Piece of Dirt” and “I’ve Got a Match”.
Having conflated the two albums in my memories, was I going to discover now that I disliked Lincoln as much as I remembered?
The short answer is: “yes,” colored by “no.”
The album starts off strong with “Ana Ng,” which is a TMBG classic by any measure and still just as good now as it was then. “Ana Ng” hits hard with a punchy guitar riff that sets the pace for the entire song, leading in to Linnel’s staccato first verse. From there, it transitions into the more flowing vocals of the chorus, but still matched with the underlying energy of the driving guitar. From the more “pure” rock instrumentation to the lyrical quality, “Ana Ng” presages more of the direction much of the band’s work was heading, especially once we get to the time of Apollo 18. But it’s still unquestionably TMBG at its core, and even has the garbled vocal break they love so much slipped in there.
“Cowtown,” the second track, takes us back more in the direction of Pink. A fluttering clarinet leads us in, giving way to a marching percussive track that rises in intensity as we proceed. I have to admit, I have a soft spot for “Cowtown” for a few reasons. First off, my Nick Jr. memories of it still linger strong. But secondly, growing up I very much lived in actual Cowtown.
That is not an exaggeration – my town was Hereford.
Named for a cow.
And my highschool had a working farm on it.
So… yes: Cowtown.
Moving on, we hit a bit of trouble. Among the next seven or so tracks was one that I quite liked. “Purple Toupee” is a fun song, and I mean that in the very truest sense of the word. It’s the kind of song that manages to make you smile in spite of yourself, even if you aren’t sure why.
The other tracks, however, had that skip impulse firing in my brain. “Cage and Aquarium,” “Piece of Dirt,” “Where Your Eyes Don’t Go”… they were all hung with that feeling of distant dislike.
But this whole project is a chance to come back with the benefit of time and see how my perspective has changed, so onward I went.
Listening to the bulk of these tracks again, I still can’t say I’m overly fond of them. But something struck me as I went through the album as a whole which I hadn’t really noticed in my high school days. There is a sense of moroseness that permeates much of this album, and while it still has the Pink-esque feeling of being somewhat pulled together of random pieces, that feeling winds its way through.
“Ana Ng” brings it to the fore right out of the gate with its message of growing old knowing that in this great big, wide world the love of your life is somewhere on the other side of it. And consider “I’ve Got a Match,” whose glockenspiel tones still grate on my ears to an extent. It is not a happy song. The peppy riffs belie the lyrics themselves, but not in a way that feels forced. TMBG has an incredible ability to weave unhappy words together with uplifting – even energizing – tunes without it feeling like a cheap shtick. There is an intentionality here that is executed well, even if the song happens to not be a favorite of mine.
“They’ll Need a Crane,” however, brings it all together in a way that I think defines the album. Simultaneously sweet and sullen, it backs a flowing melody with a playful, painful romp through love. To a lovelorn teen the song struck a nerve, and even as age and wisdom have changed the meaning of love for me it still stands as one of their best.
And again, it’s a sign of their maturation as band both in terms of content and musicianship. We’ll be hearing a lot more in this vein in the years ahead than we will be in the vein of “Pencil Rain.”
The album closes with four tracks that seem torn between the drive towards goofiness and the morose. “Shoehorn with Teeth” and “Stand On Your Own Head” are both quirky tunes to the trademark variety of interesting instrumentation. They are fun songs, for sure, but following in the footsteps of “Crane” is a tough spot to be in, and they just can’t compare. The final two tracks seem aimed at balancing the quirk with the more somber, starting with “Snowball in Hell.”
It’s the last track that deserves some special attention at this point – “Kiss Me Son of God.” If there a song that suddenly seems more relevant now, nearly thirty years after the fact, I’m not sure what it is. Even if you listen to nothing else on this album today, make sure to spare a moment for this one.
Now I laugh and make a fortune off the same ones that I tortured, and the world screams “Kiss me, son of God”
And now I’ve gone and made myself morose. Time for a “Purple Toupee” chaser.