While never recording an outright bad album, They Might Be Giants have had a spotty track record over the past decade and a half. Starting with 1996's Factory Showroom, the band relied more on kitsch and sometimes-too-clever concepts for their songs while the sense of professionalism which now wafted from their music seemed more slick than enjoyable. The weirdness and creativity of the band's lyrics and songwriting were in a slump, and so they began to use their full band, utilizing horn sections and guitar solos all over the place, as a crutch to make up the difference, leading to music that—while, again, not terrible—was wildly uneven. I always think of these albums as overlong even though they're just as long, in terms of the number of songs and playtime, as any of the older ones. Really it was a combination of the above factors and poor pacing/sequencing which had done them in and made these records seem like endurance tests. After all, They Might Be Giants will never revolutionize their sound, so it's all about creativity and novelty within the content, not the form.
Join Us is the band's first album since spending the past four years recording children's music, and I have to wonder if this got them back to their roots, when they were 20-somethings making songs with surreal/psychedelic concepts like 'Put Your Hand Inside The Puppet Head' and 'Purple Toupee.' Indeed, there are songs and moments here that could have easily been done with just the two John's and some cheap equipment: 'Cloisonne' has a linear story to tell, complete with genuinely funny affected voices, cheap sounding drum machines, and simple keyboard chords. One of Join Us's highlights, 'Protagonist', is similarly simple, with half-joking hand claps and backing vocals, all the while recalling the genre flourishes of Flood. The synth-pop of 'The Lady And The Tiger', meanwhile, is straight out of the production of the band's first two albums, as are '2082' and 'Three Might Be Duende', the latter of which has a wonderful strut to it, sounding like a mix between a march and a dance number from...oh I don't know, Robin Hood: Men In Tights.
By and large, however, Join Us feels like it welds their earlier, more creative and bizarre songwriting to the more muscular and expansive full-band sound of their mid-90s-to-present day era. This means that the album suffers from some of the same problems that the last few have, insofar as the lyrics and melodies might be good but the music sometimes sounds samey and oddly faceless. Never fear, though, it's not all about mining the past or repeating mistakes. 'Spoiler Alert' is this record's greatest attempt at breaking new ground, one of the few times you'll hear both Johns singing together throughout a song, trading lines back and forth. Furthermore, I think I might've once referred to Ween as the R-rated counterpart to Weird Al and They Might Be Giants, and I have to wonder if I was on to something after hearing 'Dog Walker', which lifts that band's patented helium-vocals and self-aware hard rock swagger.
If only they had moved away from their full band sound some more, Join Us might've given their best records a run for the money. However at a certain point, horn breakdowns and guitar solos lose their luster, especially when they're used incessantly. They Might Be Giants aren't suffering from it as much as they used to, but I still wish they'd try more new ideas instead of relying so heavily on their band's chops and energy to patch up a lack of ideas. Keep in mind, I'm a huge fan of John Henry (and the re-arrangements done for the live tracks on the underrated Severe Tire Damage are also brilliant) but in those situations the full band were used sparingly to great effect.
Join Us is the band's strongest album in years if only because they spend most of it either mining their most beloved era or trying new things. Unfortunately they didn't go far enough in either direction to completely hook me. Join Us is an almost-excellent record, showing that the band can still summon the old magic, and pull off some new tricks, when they aren't hiding behind their band. It just isn't quite the full comeback I had hoped for and tried to convince myself it was going to be.