It’s been 33 years since Johns Linnell and Flansburgh formed They Might Be Giants, and 21 since they converted their two-man accordion-guitar-MIDI operation into a multi-instrument group, meaning they’ve fronted a full-fledged rock band for the majority of their careers. The two decades since the excellent John Henry have included underrated efforts like 2004’s The Spine and 2011’s Join Us (not to mention the band’s many one-off projects, like their A.V. Club Choir-assisted performance of “Tubthumping”), but as with any long-running, consistently solid act, They Might Be Giants has been taken for granted. Another couple of years, another album brimming with humor, creativity, and melodic sophistication. What else is new?
Not much, but that’s just fine: Glean is another enjoyable entry in the They Might Be Giants canon. Like its predecessors Join Us and Nanobots, Glean is a rambunctious, surprisingly emotional effort. While their songs have always been laced with sadness, Linnell and Flansburgh have let more and more darkness creep into their childlike world in recent years: The often biting Join Us featured the lyrics “All of the dicks in this dick town / Can’t keep Johnny down” and a hilariously direct song called “When Will You Die.” Despite some typically cheery arrangements, Glean follows suit. Aging, disappointment, a song with the refrain “Where did the end of the rope go?”—they’re all here.
Yet Glean, thanks to the Johns’ sense of humor and ear for relatably disturbing lyrics, never feels like an exercise in despair. This is a They Might Be Giants record, after all, so of course there’s a horn-driven swing song called “Let Me Tell You About My Operation” and “Erase,” a power-pop gem featuring the line “Please don’t call it strangulation, that is such an ugly word.” Linnell and Flansburgh have lost none of their ability to write beautiful songs about strange things in universes of their own creation.
Glean’s only fault is its number of songs: The 39-minute record has 15 tracks (many of which premiered via the recently resurrected Dial-A-Song project), and the resulting rushed pace does the album no favors. Among highlights like “Erase” and the catchy, skittering “Unpronounceable,” there’s a track like “Underwater Woman” providing amusement but little weight. The lesser songs slow the record’s considerable momentum at pivotal moments.
But what momentum. Thirty-three years is a long time for a band to be together, especially one so fueled by creativity and imagination. That Glean exists at all is an impressive achievement; that it is so good is something of a miracle.