I’m supremely confident that for most people over the age of twenty-five or so, the memory of where they were on September 11th, 2001 is forever etched in their minds. For me, I was in bed in my childhood bedroom in my parents’ house, sleeping in after a long evening of playing video games.
My mother came in and woke me up.
“There’s been an accident,” she said. I remember that part quite clearly, despite my sleepy haze. “A plane hit the World Trade Center.”
This would’ve been a huge story no matter who you were, but my mother was from New York and my cousin worked in the immediate area of the WTC. So this was something more. But at that point – still shy of 9am – it was still just an “accident.”
By the time I rolled out of bed and made my way to the kitchen to catch up on the news, it was clear it was much, much more. When the second plane struck the south tower, any illusions of this being a freak accident were gone.
The question then was: what else was coming?
I don’t bring up 9/11 lightly. If you are wondering why the hell I’m even mentioning it in my otherwise lighthearted look back at the career of They Might Be Giants, I do so for a reason. In spite of all that happened on that day, the threads of normality still persisted in the world. In the shadow of terror and fear, the wheels of marketing schedules rolled onward, and They Might Be Giants released their eighth album, Mink Car.
For me, it is impossible to untangle the memories of Mink Car from the memories of those days following 9/11. While all of this series has been about tying music to certain slices of life, this one is… heavier.
I graduated college in the spring of 2001, unleashed out into the real world without much of a plan. I knew I wanted to be a writer. Or a filmmaker. Or a game designer. Or maybe some kind of creative field that didn’t even exist yet.
Frankly, the details of it didn’t seem to matter.
All I knew was that I was out of the learning phase and into the doing phase. This was the “real” world everyone always said we were preparing for, and I was pretty sure I was ready. Because, frankly, things had been pretty damn good in the real world for the most part.
In the decade since I’d become a cogent follower of the world at large, we’d ended the Cold War, the economy was booming, and the biggest concern we’d had to face (as far as I could see) was how much Bill Clinton liked to get his dick sucked. That was a problem I could handle. Sure, W had maybe stolen the election from Gore, but no matter how dumb I thought he was I was pretty sure he wasn’t going to torch the country.
Graduation was the gateway to a world where anything was supposed to be possible. That’s what everybody tells you, anyway. The world is your oyster and all that good stuff. Sure, we all know it’s not really that easy, but there’s still that commencement afterglow infusing you with an excitement for all that *could* be.
I had no plans after graduation.
I moved back to my parents’ house and figured I’d give myself a summer to figure it all out. Enjoy my newfound freedom from academics and let the next steps come naturally.
Of course, despite my lazy aspirations, my pragmatic instincts kicked in and I got myself a job (part-time, at least). My first summer of “freedom” mostly boiled down to shifts at the mall, drinking, and the aforementioned video games.
But you know? It was ok. Time was on my side.
9/11 – to strip away my penchant for overwrought verbosity – kicked the ever-living shit out of those ideas.
On that day the world stopped being a blank canvas of possibility. Everything I had taken for granted for most of my adolescence and adulthood was wiped out in a single morning.
The days following 9/11 were just a reinforcement of that idea. Planes grounded, military actions launched in a country I had literally never thought about, and everyone coping in their own way with this new reality.
In the midst of all of this, I made my way to the mall (which at the time was under armed guard) to try and reclaim some sense of normalcy. In this case, that normalcy was in the form of 17 new tracks from my favorite band.
I listened to Mink Car a lot in those first few months after September 11th. The world was changing on a near-daily basis, and anchoring myself with something familiar felt good. I was also in a long-distance relationship with my girlfriend (now wife) at the time, so I was spending a lot of time in the car with my good old single-disk CD system. No fancy twelve-disk changers for me!
As the months stretched on, it seemed pretty clear any sense of normal was gone and was not coming back any time soon. The economy tanked, we went and invaded another country on the flimsiest of pretenses, and everyone wanted us to believe the world was a much scarier place. All the excitement – all the promise – we had on graduation day was wiped away by this strange new world. Whatever the Class of ’01 thought the world beyond college was going to be, I don’t think any of us had ever considered this. But as track 12, “Older”, likes to point out – time keeps marching on.
The “new” normal became just “normal”, and we figured out how to make our way through it in whatever way we could. Mink Car ceased to be a comfort and became a weird sort of reminder of those tumultuous days. So it was put aside – not out of distaste like Factory Showroom – but out of discomfort.
Diving back in to it now has pulled up a lot of these old thoughts. The fact that I’m 1,000 words into an album review and haven’t talked about a single track yet probably stands as pretty good evidence of that. It’s extra strange to hear it again now when even the old new normal feels like a throwback to less terrifying times. With the daily chaos that is now, can Mink Car find a place in it?
Fortunately, it’s a pretty good album.
The album opens with “Bangs”, a song dedicated to an obsession with the titular hair feature. The song sets the high-energy tone that dominates the first half of the album, and hones in on the more refined sound that marks it as well. Mink Car feels like a sharply produced album, but unlike Factory Showroom where things drifted towards being overproduced, this one feels like the band took a few steps back and focused on richness over quantity.
You can get a sense of this balance in track 3, “Man, It’s So Loud in Here” which is a piece that very well could have given in to its own joke. But instead of laying synth upon synth, noise upon noise, the track builds on a thrumming baseline. Anchored by that, an electronic pulse rises and falls through the course of the song but never pushes it too far.
Mink Car keeps the things moving at a rapid clip before finally settling down with track 5, “Another First Kiss.” While I certainly don’t know what was going on in the personal lives of the Johns, it’s interesting to note that unlike so many other of their dark love songs, this one seems genuinely loving. Growing older, eh?
The second half of the album moves from high energy into more of a somber tone. “Hovering Sombrero”, “Hopeless Bleak Despair”, and “Older” all touch on ideas of time passing us by and what we’re doing with it. In light of everything that was happening in the world at the time, it felt poignant. Hearing them again now as I hit the later end of my 30s, they feel… poignant.
“My Man”, track 11, is another downer of a song. The thing is it’s also a wonderfully composed piece. The hook of the sonar-esque ping, the swelling guitar at the bridge – it’s just great. It’s one of my favorite tracks of the album, moroseness and all.
Another favorite for entirely different reasons is track 14, “Wicked Little Critta.” On ode to growing up in Massachusetts, this song always brings me back to the Boston side of my family. I didn’t grow up there, but this song takes me back to summers with my cousins and learning the fine art of dialect from a young age.
The final track on the album, “Working Undercover For the Man,” was probably my least favorite track back in the day. I couldn’t tell you why – I just remember turning it off most of the time. Listening to it now, I don’t find it nearly as objectionable. It feel slightly off from the rest of the album for reasons I can’t quite put my finger on, but nothing so terrible as to deserve being ignored.
Finished With Lies
Listening to Mink Car again has stirred up a lot of memories. It’s forever entwined with a dark time for not just me, but everyone. But it was also something that helped carry me through them, and that’s the feeling that should remain for the long haul. Mink Car came out at the end of an era – at the end of childhood for me in a very severe sense. It’s a lot of weight to put on one album, but fortunately it holds up. After Mink Car, the world was a different place – for the band, too. TMBG starts going some different directions after this album, as you’ll see next time…