14. They Might Be Giants, Lincoln
When I arrived at the campus radio station in the fall of 1988, I was a relative neophyte when it came to college rock. I certainly put on airs that I knew more than I did, the cool kid culture of college radio necessitating a reasonable amount of knowledge to earn respect (or so I thought). And I was an eager, fast learner. Still, I had only the barest exposure to many of the bands that were staples on our airwaves, so anytime I encountered an album from a band I felt I knew a little better, I was extremely grateful. Therefore, I felt very lucky that my arrival coincided with that of Lincoln, the sophomore release from They Might Be Giants.
Now, it’s not as if I knew the band comprised of the Two Johns (Linnell and Flansburgh), but their very first single, “Don’t Let’s Start” (off of their self-titled debut), became an unlikely MTV staple, thanks to an attention-getting, oddball music video. That coincided with just enough laudatory press to raise their stature in my limited view. I caught other songs from them here and there (their follow-up music video, stray favorites that got played in the strange corners of one of the local radio station’s programming schedule), meaning I roughly knew what to expect with Lincoln. Namely, the songs would be catchy, quirky, and demonstrate a giddy freedom to bound across genres, adopting a reshaping everything they touched to their own smart aleck sensibilities. Even the trade publication ads touting the album took a cheeky tone, proclaiming Lincoln as the proud successor to other much-loved items that shared its name, from a president to a town to delightfully fun logs.
I’m not sure if I can term Lincoln as the first album from that autumn semester that I fell totally, irretrievably in love with (that honor is probably reserved for the album up for discussion when the countdown reaches the number five slot), but it is certainly the record that made me appreciate the value in music that was clearly shaped by a distinctive, singular voice and yet was incredibly diverse. I could return to Lincoln week after week and always feel like I was playing songs that kept my playlist fluidly different. I could incorporate the jerky honky tonk of “Cowtown,” the bizarro jazz of “Lie Still, Little Bottle,” or the art piece aggression of “You’ll Miss Me.” When the holiday season rolled around, my general aversion to Christmas songs fell before the thumping charms of “Santa’s Beard.” That’s a big batch of songs that I was happy to drop the needle on, and I haven’t yet covered the real pinnacles of the album.
I once read a music piece that cited “Ana Ng” as one of the greatest love songs ever recorded, an assertion I original found ludicrous. Then I thought more about it. Lincoln‘s spectacular lead single is ostensibly about a doomed romance between the song’s protagonist and the Vietnamese woman of the title, with the lament “Ana Ng and I are getting old/ And we still haven’t walked in the glow/ Of each other’s majestic presence” serving as a poignant, pointed explication of the enduring misery of unrequited love. The song is filled with lyrics of great affect, including, “When I was driving once I saw this painted on a bridge:/ ‘I don’t want the world, I just want your half,'” as well as the vivid imagery of the opening: “Make a hole with a gun perpendicular/ To the name of this town in a desktop globe/ Exit wound in a foreign nation/ Showing the home of the one this was written for.” (The latter was reportedly inspired by an old Pogo comic strip.) The whole track is stealthily ravishing.
At the time, I was maybe even more taken with the direct heartache of follow-up single “They’ll Need a Crane” (“Love sees love’s happiness/ But happiness can’t see that love is sad”). But then I found a new potential favorite with nearly every shift: “The World’s Address,” “Purple Toupee,” “Where Your Eyes Don’t Go.” Lincoln had a total of eighteen tracks, and I think it’s likely I played every last one of them — some of them multiple times — before it completed its journey through the station’s rotation. Of course I did. Lincoln represented a safe zone for me, a band I had some amount of command over, a knowledge level that wasn’t all that dissimilar from anyone else in the station. Besides, they were funny, lively, and a little bratty, although harmlessly so in the case of the latter quality. I suppose I could relate.