After he ceded the spotlight to They Might Be Giants bandmate/co-founder John Flansburgh on their eclectic self-titled 1986 debut, Linnell comes into his own on this more polished and focused 1988 followup, Lincoln (as in Massechusetts, not Nebraska!). His nasal twang may not be as versatile as Flansy's slightly less-nasal voice, but it's more distinctive; Linnell's contributions to this disc -- generally more consistent than those of his partner -- are insanely catchy, exquisitely crafted pop-rock gems. "Ana Ng" is a moving tale of unrequited love that rocks like crazy; "Where Your Eyes Don't Go" is a disturbingly catchy ode to paranoia. The anthemic "Purple Toupee" is about how a fellow born in 1959 or '60 tries to interpret the major events of the '60s, with humorous and irreverent results. The gentle "I've Got a Match" ("...your embrace and my collapse") is a vaguely dark song about falling out of love; the rollicking "They'll Need a Crane," in its depiction of an unhappy couple beyond hope or help, uses the poignant imagery of a home literally being torn down. He even comes up with an inspired guilty pleasure in "Pencil Rain" (think war imagery with refs to "lead," "splintered wood," and "number two"). The best of the lot is "Kiss Me, Son of God," a lovely pop ballad taking aim at religious cults and the corruption that comes with any position of power ("I built a little empire out of some crazy garbage called the blood of the exploited working class / But they've overcome their shyness, now they're calling me 'Your Highness'"); the sparse instrumentation and Flansburgh's harmonies bring an undercurrent of melancholy to Linnell's biting wit and acerbic lead vocal.
That's not to say that Flansburgh doesn't have his moments here. "Snowball in Hell" is a bouncy working-stiff's lament featuring the classic line, "If it wasn't for disappointment, I wouldn't have any appointments." He ventures into jazz with "Lie Still, Little Bottle," a surreal meditation on drug addiction; on the Latin-pop shuffle "The World's Address," he waxes disillusioned after being betrayed by a lover. The New Wave-y "Santa's Beard" ranks with the Pogues' "Fairytale of New York" and the Ramones' "Merry Christmas (I Don't Wanna Fight Tonight)" as one of the best pop holiday tunes about troubled relationships. The folkish "Cowtown" doesn't make much sense (something about visiting a cow beneath the sea?), but it sounds wonderful; and "Piece of Dirt" is a sparse, elegantly crooned pop ode to isolation, loneliness and self-loathing ("I find myself haunted by a spooky man named me / I wish that I could jump out of my skin"). (I must also mention "Shoehorn With Teeth," his twee, nonsensical duet with Linnell featuring the priceless lyric, "What's the sense in ever thinking about the tomb when you're much too busy returning to the womb?").
Heavy themes aside, TMBG arm themselves with enough bright pop hooks to keep this disc from becoming one big bummer. I'm also pleased to say that the filler quotient is quite low. Linnell's "Mr. Me" and "Stand on Your Own Head" are just too lightweight compared with the surrounding material, as is Flansburgh's "Cage and Aquarium;" and I am especially disappointed in Flansy's "You'll Miss Me," which wastes some terrific lyrics ("Your money talks but my genius walks ... It must be raining because a man ain't supposed to cry, but I look up and I don't see a cloud") on a gratuitously jokey performance. Otherwise, both Johns have done a great job!