At first this may not seem like much more than a breezy TMBG ditty, with a sort of catchy chorus but maybe not in the really marvelous category of some of their older classics, because the hook maybe isn’t as instantly ear-catching as their songs have sometimes been.
Keep listening. It is a breezy TMBG ditty and it’s also really marvelous: an all-out love letter to the group’s classic sound, spotlighting melody devotee John Linnell’s delight in wide-ranging melodic lines which flow effortlessly from the top to the bottom of the scale. What it may lack in pure giddiness it makes up for with oomph and know-how. Plus, this change: rather than sporting the absurdist puzzle-lyrics the duo usually favors, “Can’t Keep Johnny Down” resembles one of their anomaly songs, “Your Racist Friend,” in both manner (straightforward-ish rather than head-scratching) and target (harmful ignorance). Their traditional goofiness (don’t worry!) remains intact, but maybe they have realized that in 2011 the world can use their intelligence and humanity more directly stated than “My name is blue canary/One note spelled ‘l-i-t-e'”; and so forth. Randy Newman-ishly, they sing here from the limited narrator’s point of view—in this case, a guy who, among other things, is annoyed because a tellingly described astronaut on the moon “thinks he’s better than me.” I like right after that how Linnell breaks the fourth wall (do songs have fourth walls? maybe not) when he sings: “I’m pointing a finger at my own face/They can’t know what’s in here.” The guy realizes we can’t see him so he tells us what he’s doing. Note he points at his “face,” which is the surface of his head, which of course has nothing “in here.”
I would be remiss not to draw attention, further, to what may be one of the most absurd internal rhymes in the history of song: “I’m not a monument to justice/Plus which I don’t forget a face.” Told you they’re still goofy.
“Can’t Keep Johnny Down” is a song from the band’s forthcoming album, Join Us, their first not-for-kids album since 2007’s The Else. It will be released digitally later this month, and available in physical form in July on Idlewild/Rounder Records. And hooray: this is They Might Be Giants’ long-awaited Fingertips debut. The site owes its name to the band; I’m glad to be able to feature them after all these years.