When Pope Francis, writing in “Evangelii Gaudium” (“The Joy of the Gospel”), said that “the Church will have to initiate everyone” into the “art of accompaniment,” he probably didn’t mean every Catholic should learn to sing while playing an instrument.
Yet the long-running musical duo They Might Be Giants, whose 20 studio albums have sold more than 4 million copies, perform for their fans a kind of accompaniment that, in a limited but real sense, complements the pope’s mission.
Although John Flansburgh and John Linnell are not Catholic — it’s unclear if they’re even theists — they use their art to help fans face life’s challenges with humility and humor.
Think of their songs for children, like “I Made a Mess,” offering empathy for those who unwittingly trash their surroundings (while reminding them that “somehow [they] have got to clean it up”), or their 1989 classic “Birdhouse in Your Soul,” helping fellow 20-somethings maintain an inner cloister of childlike hope amid the cynicism of the “greed is good” decade.
Their latest album, “I Like Fun” (from their label), accompanies listeners far beyond childhood’s end — to the end of life, to be exact. Granted, their corpus has more than its share of corpses; previous albums featured songs like “Dead” (“Flood”) and “Dig My Grave” (“Apollo 18”).
While these songs, in the context of their respective albums, were blemishes on love, the entirety of “I Like Fun” is a musical memento mori, from its first tentative beats until it breathes its last.
That’s not to say “I Like Fun” is a downer. It’s filled with the catchy hooks and irreverent ironies you would expect from They Might Be Giants at their best. But it doesn’t take much listening to find serious cracks in its cheerful veneer. The opening track, “Let’s Get This Over With,” sets the tone with lyrics that sound like the first chapter of Ecclesiastes, rewritten for a generation burned out on the fear of missing out:
Creep across the ground until the day is done
All the while the planet circles ’round the sun
Everybody knows how this goes so let’s get over it
And let’s get this over with.
Collectively, the tracks convey what Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen, in his book “Lift Up Your Heart,” called “black grace” — that “overwhelming sense of emptiness” from a life lived without reference to God. Sheen goes so far as to say that this black grace “might be called the negative Presence of God in the soul.”
For Archbishop Sheen, black grace serves a vital purpose for the nonbeliever, throwing into sharp relief the difference between the world as it is and the world as even the most secular person dimly recognizes it should be.
Although in itself it is not saving, it can lead its recipient to open his heart to the “white grace” of conversion.
On “I Like Fun,” the black grace is most palpable in its final track, “Last Wave.” The narrator is “so tired of waiting.” “My heart is cold,” he adds. “The sky is dark. I’m curled up in the ashes.” Then comes the singalong chorus: “We die alone / We die afraid / We live in terror / Naked and alone / We die.”
I’m nearly a decade younger than Flansburgh and Linnell, but I feel like I have aged with them. I first encountered them in 1984 — I phoned the “Dial-a-Song” number advertised on the back page of the Village Voice and left a gushy message. They responded generously with free recordings for me to play on my high school’s radio station.
Later, I followed them as they won over the New York nightclub scene, and cheered them on at the launch party for their self-titled first album in 1986. At that time, black grace was the only grace I knew.
I last personally encountered the two Johns at a concert 20 years ago — well before my conversion to Catholicism. In conducting phone interviews with each of them for Angelus News, I was personally curious about their present attitudes concerning music, life and faith.
Interview with John Flansburgh
Dawn Eden Goldstein: There’s a lot of joy in what you’re doing.
John Flansburgh: At the core of how we approach things, the most original territory we carve out for ourselves, is this balancing act between a lot of almost opposite things. A lot of things are extremely adult — the concerns of adults, nonadolescent things — and then some very childlike ideas.
There’ll be contrasts between serious and featherweight imagery, or even monolithic lyrics about something gloomy, but the music is bright and melodically driven. The song ends up landing with an audience in an almost kaleidoscopic experience.
I’ve become very aware that our audience thinks of what we’re doing as a celebration, and it’s extremely life-affirming for people. Everybody’s dealing with all the complexities of their lives, and sometimes our songs are meditations on getting through.
And yet, when you put those prosaic thoughts into music, it can become a much more joyous thing.
Goldstein: On your YouTube channel, you have a promotional video for Dial-a-Song that features the tagline, “Get Atheism by Night.”
Flansburgh: That’s just an anagram of They Might be Giants. It’s really not as advocacy so much as we thought it might be fun to have every video end with an anagram of our name.
Goldstein: When your album “Science is Real” came out, some Christians accused you of promoting atheism, and some atheists responded by claiming that you were indeed boosting their cause. How did it feel to be caught in the middle of that?
Flansburgh: The lyric line in the title track is, “I like those stories about angels, unicorns and elves / I like those stories as much as anybody else.” And the truth is, our creative lives are really wrapped up in imaginary things, but also literary things and symbolic things.
I’m not a spiritual person by formal definition, but both John and I think about literary ideas and philosophical ideas, and abstract ideas that are mysterious and elusive, and we’re preoccupied with creative stuff.
Some of it is fantastical; a lot of it is just fictitious. A lot of our songs are written from the point of view of an unreliable narrator.
The lyric might seem cavalier, but I would really beg for people to take it exactly at face value.
Goldstein: As a Catholic, I believe in angels. But I didn’t take that song to mean you were denying truth of the supernatural. I thought you were saying exactly that — there’s the world of imagination, and the world of things we can analyze.
Flansburgh: I feel like there are worlds that can live in harmony with one another pretty effortlessly, and yet it’s become a very politicized thing.
Goldstein: “Last Wave” strikes me as a modern answer to the Beach Boys’ “Surf’s Up,” which is also about dying and surfing. What were you thinking when you wrote it?
Flansburgh: That song is from John Linnell, but for me, it reminds me of our first breakthrough song, “Don’t Let’s Start.” John had this startling line, “Everybody dies frustrated and sad and that is beautiful.” “Last Wave” bookends that idea for me in a new way.
Interview with John Linnell
Dawn Eden Goldstein: You once told Parenting magazine, regarding your children’s albums, that “kids like to hear things that don’t make sense,” as “kids dig mystery.” Does that help explain the appeal to adults?
John Linnell: That’s completely right, although we’ve pointed out in the past that we’re not being deliberately obscure. We like the idea that you can fill in the gaps imaginatively.
There are songs we write where the lyrics are very explicit, and leave nothing to the imagination. Then there are others where there’s a kind of pleasure we take in being oblique. It’s not that there’s a secret we’re concealing; the song itself just doesn’t completely connect all the dots. But that’s what you get.
And in some ways that reflects all of our experiences on earth — sometimes you don’t get the answers. People have to live with mystery.
Goldstein: I asked John Flansburgh about “Last Wave,” and he said it’s kind of a follow-up to “Don’t Let’s Start,” with the lyrics about death.
Linnell: That song was an exercise in trying to write a song based on synchronizing the lyrics to a Run-DMC Aerosmith video. I was looking at the people singing and rapping, and working intuitively off of that, and the lyrics just flowed. There wasn’t really a plan to begin with; it was just what came out of that process.
Goldstein: “I like Fun” has to be one of the most serious songs to have the word “fun” in the title.
Linnell: It does continue a tradition we’ve had of pairing off extremely dark material with something happy. A lot of our songs have poppy, friendly melodies, and the lyrics are much darker.
Goldstein: To me, when you do that, it makes the darker subjects less frightening. Is that a service good music provides?
Linnell: I would put it the opposite way, and say that with humor, you can talk about extremely dark stuff and make it tolerable. That’s one of the functions of humor, to say something unbearably bleak in a way that people want to actually listen to it. That makes it digestible.
There’s obviously an urgent feeling that we want to discuss this deep, dark stuff. But it’s not really our mode to depress the hell out of everybody.
Goldstein: “No one in the world ever gets what they want and that is beautiful” — did you write that seriously or humorously?
Linnell: On the surface, it’s kind of facetious, and yet you can listen to it and take it other ways. It’s not overly sarcastic; it’s got more ingredients than just sarcasm. I wouldn’t take it, obviously, at face value. It’s just taking an idea and putting a weird spin on it.
Goldstein: I like that. It didn’t mean as much to me when I was a teenager as it does now. I’m really thankful that I didn’t get everything I wanted.
Linnell: Oh, that’s interesting. Very good.