In the early winter of my sophomore year of high school, my friends and I got word that fresh off the release of their newest album, They Might Be Giants were going to be playing in Washington, D.C. Piling into my friend’s van on a dark, snowy night that we probably shouldn’t have been going out on the roads for, we trundled down I-95 to our nation’s capital for the show.
They were playing a venue called the Radio Music Hall, which was the future site of what’s now the 9:30 Club and has a pretty interesting history itself. But I wasn’t there to appreciate the storied venue – I was there to see my favorite band. This show was the first time I’d be seeing them in person, and it was something I’d been waiting for for a long time.
When they finally hit the stage at last, one thing struck me immediately: There were a lot more of them than I expected. TMBG had always just been John and John to me. That wasn’t just my personal perception either – as I’ve covered previously, up until the tour for Apollo 18, it really had been just the two of them at every step.
But now, on the John Henry tour, here was a stage full of people. Not just the regular old rock band setup, either – they had an entire brass trio up on stage with them. I hadn’t seen a lot of rock concerts at this point in my life, but this was certainly something different.
Once the set began, it was fantastic. John and John were exactly what I expected – equally awkward and fun. Hearing my favorite songs (and even some of my not-favorites) arranged for this new set of instruments was also an experience. This wasn’t just a run through of the latest album, this was a revisiting of their catalog performed in an entirely new light.
I Saw the Worst Bands of My Generation
The “new sound” of John Henry was really, as I see it, the natural apex of the evolution begun in Apollo 18. It’s not just the simple matter of swapping out real instruments for the synth ones they’d used up to that point; it was a maturation of their composition, and also their strongest shift yet towards having a “traditional” rock sound. A lot of fans weren’t happy, of course – some even staged protests of TMBG’s shows, wanting them to return to the old synth days.
I loved it. It wasn’t a matter of sounding more like a rock band, it was that the songs were continually growing in richness and musical complexity, but still with plenty of the TMBG playfulness any fan would expect.
The album kicks off with “Subliminal”, which kicks off with a brief accordion riff in case you needed a reminder of who you were listening to. From there, it slips into a driving pulse of guitar backed by real, honest-to-goodness drums.
As an opener, it sets the tone for the album to come and much like “Dig My Grave” on Apollo 18, it’s letting you know that this is another new stage for the band.
“Subliminal” gives way to “Snail Shell”, which is a song I’ve always enjoyed but, on hearing it again, I think I never gave enough credit to. Continuing the gritty rock sound, “Snail Shell” has some fascinating musical interplay running through it between the drums, bass, and piano. Broken into several distinct sections, each of those elements is given a time to shine on their own before being drawn back together with the others.
Next up, we step back a bit from the gritty sound but lose none of the energy as we hit “Sleeping In the Flowers.” In classic TMBG tradition, “Sleeping” is a dark love song set to a tune that almost forces you to slip into the beat. It’s also the premiere of the horns we’ll be hearing a lot more of throughout the album, and they introduce themselves here with unabashed vigor.
The fourth track, “Unrelated Thing” is a bit of a break from the high energy and drive of the first three tracks. Back in my younger days, it wasn’t a particular favorite of mine. In was a strong skip button candidate, for sure. Listening to it again, it’s still not really something I would come back to on a regular basis. Yet, it falls well within the band’s trend of stretching genre and working outside expectations, and it’s very well done in that regard. And viewed in the context of the album, it is a nice break between the other tracks.
I’m going to skip ahead a few tracks, because there is a lot to take in on this album. I mean that quite literally – this was TMBGs longest album to date, with 20 tracks stretching a full 59 minutes. That’s nearly 1/3 longer than all of their previous albums, and just another sign of the band’s prolific nature.
“I Should Be Allowed to Think”, the sixth track on the album, was always one of my favorites but one that I hadn’t listened to in a long while. Coming back to it again, the first few bars alone pulled me right back in. For me, this track runs that perfect line between somber and joyous, a subdued musical howl into the dark.
If you are running through this album in order – as we did in the days of old – and you hit track 10, it would no doubt come as a surprise. “O Do Not Forsake Me” is a goofy vocal dirge that basically comes out of nowhere. Of course, if you are a TMBG fan, things coming out of nowhere is no surprise. You just take it in stride.
The most memorable part of that long ago show in the wintry depths of Washington, D.C. was when the band hit track 11, “No One Knows My Plan”, and John F rallied the entire audience into a massive congo line. This became a staple of TMBG shows for years, and rightfully so. Here that brass section is put to full effect, kicking off with a trilling trumpet riff that, should the mood strike you, might certainly drive you into organized group dance. “No One Knows” is also the song that made me look up Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, which put me way ahead of the game for every other time it gets referenced in modern culture. So for that I owe it thanks.
One track I have to give extra attention to is track 13, “Destination Moon”. It was always a solid piece, and one of my favorites. Like so many others, though, I had pushed it to the back of my mind as the years passed and other music took its place. But then, a few years back, I had a daughter. Along with the infinite other changes to my life that brought, one big one was a lot of very sleepless nights. In those early days during one of those 3am moments of sleeplessness, having run through all of the lullabies I could recall, for some reason “Destination Moon” bubbled to the surface and I found myself quietly performing the whole thing. Even now, three plus years later, it’s become a regular part of bedtime (she calls it the “rocket to the moon” song). I’ve introduced quite a few other TMBG songs into the repertoire, but “Destination Moon” will always hold a place as the first one we really shared.
Track 18, “Out of Jail”, was never one of my favorites. I don’t know what exactly it was about it, but for some reason I just never wanted to listen to it. And that’s how it was for a very long time. Coming back to it now, I have no recourse but to accept that my younger self really had no valid reason for feeling that way. “Jail” is another in the catalog of John F twisted love songs, and this far into their discography they’ve all been strong pieces. It’s also situated very well on the album, coming as a nice break between the strangeness of “Window” and the grinding “Stomp Box”. While “Jail” isn’t at the top of my list now, it’s been salvaged from the depths of the ignore pile, and as I’ve listened to this album time and again over the past few days it’s one of the one that I keep finding myself singing in the shower.
The final song on the album, “End of the Tour”, was a song designed to put worry into the hearts of young TMBG fans. I know it certainly put a scare in me. The song wraps up with the line “and we’re never gonna tour again.” Back in the early 90s, in a time before a deluge of internet information, this was enough to convince this listener that there was a very good chance they might not be touring again. And if they weren’t touring again, did that mean they weren’t going to be making any more albums? This was their fifth album in a 14 year career – by 80s bands standards they were long overdue for a breakup.
Fortunately my fears were groundless. It’s just a good song with no terrifying implications. Enjoy.
Look At All the People
John Henry is a pivotal album in the ever-shifting sound of They Might Be Giants. With the shift to a full band, the album marks the biggest departure from the “original” sound of TMBG. If you knew someone who was familiar with TMBG’s earlier works and wanted none of it, I’d argue you could put this album in front of them and there was a good chance they might change their tune. That’s not a knock against earlier works, just a suspicion. It help that it’s an incredibly tight album, with each piece feeling like it was meticulously thought out in terms of a larger whole. There’s still a few tracks I can take or leave, but revisiting it has given me a new appreciation for it as a whole.
As a totally random bit of errata, in my research for this article I discovered that the band produced a promotional HyperCard stack to go with the launch of the album, which may be the most early 90’s thing ever. Fortunately, some bold internet historian has reproduced the whole thing right here.
Next Up: Factory Showroom and a visit overseas.