On the commentary track for 2002’s Gigantic (A Tale Of Two Johns), They Might Be Giants’ John Linnell wonders aloud whether the documentary will serve as the band’s tombstone. It was a valid concern—even for a band that deals so gleefully with death—and eerily prescient, considering TMBG’s middling output following the film’s release. The weird, eclectic Join Us, however, serves as a refreshing corrective to years of kiddie albums and so-so grown-up discs, and reestablishes Linnell and John Flansburgh as geek-rock explorers of the highest order.
The sparkling “Can’t Keep Johnny Down” kicks things off in winning fashion, showcasing Linnell’s surprising late-career ability to craft a slick pop tune. But aside from a few more ringers, the rest of the album resembles the grab-bag goodness of 1990’s Flood. Left-field arrangements and instrumentations abound, and even the flat-out rockers (“Judy Is Your Viet Nam”) and straight-up throwbacks (“Old Pine Box”) are shot through with a newfound sense of kitchen-sink experimentation. The busy, upbeat highlight “When Will You Die” revels in TMBG’s giddy black humor, and ends up being one of the group’s most jubilant, life-affirming songs. (It also contains the most adorable band-member shout-outs since The Promise Ring’s “Things Just Getting Good.”)
True to form, Join Us is long; at 18 tracks, it’s a lot to digest. But when Linnell triumphantly sings “On that promised morning, we will wake and greet the dawn / knowing that your wicked life is over and that we will carry on,” during the bridge of “When Will You Die,” it’s impossible not to smile. Moments like those remind listeners how best to enjoy They Might Be Giants: jumping around, shouting along, and spazzing out in the face of death.