I have a November album. I’m not ashamed of this. It’s kind of an autumn or fall album, but I always feel the urge or need to listen to this album in and around November. For the record, before I continue, I do not, for my recollection, have an album for any other month, but every November like clockwork, I listen to John Henry by They Might Be Giants.
No, not just a song, the whole album. No, not on shuffle, maybe “album repeat” but never shuffle, and I listen to it throughout the entire month, every year for more than the past decade. Since I have a special relationship with this album, I treated myself to the double vinyl, which is what I’m listening to, as I start to write this here post introduction.
And you know what? This is a whole album. Bands don’t truly produce whole albums together, they slap a bunch of singles on something and call it an album. But a true album is an experience with builds itself up, waxes and wanes from song to song and from side to side. And with John Henry, They Might Be Giants did create, not just a collection of songs, but a whole experience, which is what an album should be.
Now, before I get into why I enjoy this album so much, let me preemptively answer one question before I move on. November is not the only time of the year this album gets airtime in my world, it is, in fact, on rotation throughout the year. But when the weather turns cold, I always get in the mood to listen to this album. So, track by track, I’m going to describe to you why I enjoy this album as a whole, in the hopes that maybe, through explaining things to you, my readers, I can figure out why every November I find myself listening to this album start to finish. Because at this point in the post, I can only tell you that it is in fact the truth, though here before I discuss track number one, I don’t rightly have an answer as to why!
And another preamble, because my friends at Our Liner Notes would look down on my if I didn’t cover the pertinent details at the top. They Might Be Giants (often referred to as TMBG) was formed in 1982 by John Flansburgh and John Linnell. Ok, so maybe that’s too far back. Continuing, John Henry is the fifth studio album and the first to include a “full band arrangement” as opposed to the synthesized or programmed tracks they’d used as backing prior.
The album was released in 1994 and according to a quote from tmbg.com circa 1997 (thanks to the Internet Archive Wayback Machine, and written by one or both of the Johns; “John Henry is a legendary black railroad worker from the middle of the nineteenth century. He figures in a number of American folk songs, including one simply called “John Henry.” The story describes a competition between John Henry, the strongest human, versus a new machine built to smash rocks. They compete to break through a mountain. The machine breaks down in the tunnel, while John Henry comes out the other side, only to die from exhaustion. Since this was the first album where we worked with a live band instead of a drum machine it seemed an apt title.”
And who am I to argue with anything other than the premise that a live band as a drum machine might have the band “come out the other side, only to die from exhaustion.” Still, playing it smart, They Might Be Giants, on the strength of the two Johns is still around and rocking today, so there’s that.
John Henry was until 2011’s Join Us the band’s highest-charting adult album, but I just don’t know that many fans who know of it, so where are the rest of you hibernating?
Now, onto the music!
Track One: Subliminal
The key to any great album experience, when listening from start to finish without shuffle is a good table setter, like a great leadoff hitter in baseball. And Subliminal has a nice blues groove with some alternating vocal harmonics and the reversing of the track at the end, is just perfect. The table is properly set. Honestly, is there a better lyric to start any album than “as I got hit by a car there was a message for me?” I don’t think so.
Track Two: Snail Shell
The drums and bass take over Snail Shell. That bass line holds it own during the chorus, which says a lot considering the drums drive basically the rest of the song. And now John and John are two for two in taking full advantage of the full band they have backing them. “I fell out of might right place again,” is sincerely a line that we can all appreciate because who hasn’t been there?
Track Three: Sleeping in the Flowers
Some of the most classic TMBG songs rely heavily on great lyrics, because why not lean on your strengths since John and John are two wonderfully talented lyricists. In the course of the album, this song is an upbeat pop song with some great horn action and a guitar solo to uplift you from the two prior tunes, which are less pop and more rock / alternative. Also, let’s face facts, any song that ends with the line “tell my boss I’m fired,” is a fun song.
Track Four: Unrelated Thing
Time to bring it down a little bit with an alternative country tune? Yeah, the crying guitar behind “How come you never look me in the ? Aren’t you listening to me said the man” is so well done and married together with the chorus, of “thinking of an unrelated thing,” that every time I hear the words “thing” after “unrelated” in a sentence, this song starts to play in my head.
Track Five: AKA Driver
“It’s NyQuil driving time!” Yeah, after “Unrelated Thing” this song comes in and just drives you on. It’s a bit of a musically driven pick-me-up and further proof that this album works best with shuffle turned to “off,” because after all, it is “just a full day’s drive away.”
Track Six: I Should Be Allowed to Think
“I should be allowed to blurt the merest idea, if by random whim, one occurs to me,” and here I am. They lyrics borrow an excerpt from Allen Ginsberg’s poem Howl. I can’t truly pick a favorite song off the album, but this is near the top and in the discussion for sure. Because, “I am not allowed to think” is not an option for me.
Track Seven: Extra Savoir-Faire
And now to put some of that “full band” to use with some lower woodwinds. I mean, “what’s a man like me supposed to do, with all this extra savoir-faire?” Considering the track that precedes it, it seems like a perfectly normal transition from A to B or X to Y for me.
Track Eight: Why Must I Be Sad
The contrasting musical arrangement coupled with a string of Alice Cooper song titles, like “Billion Dollar Babies,” “No More Mr. Nice Guy,” “Welcome to My Nightmare,” “School’s Out” and “I Love the Dead” to name a few and a chorus that references Alice directly by singing “Ask me now, I understand the words that Alice said,” it appears the two Johns really like their Alice Cooper, as do I.
Track Nine: Spy
A walking bass line, and some very crisp horn action, this song predates this blog and my idea of personifying a Spy with the Agent Palmer persona, but if I were to write my own Spy fiction, this would definitely be considered one of my influences. “Spy spy spy spy” repeated four times and a very interesting story told through instruments “talking” to each other? Yes… I just can’t get enough of this song.
Track Ten: O, Do Not Forsake Me
Time to bring it down a notch, because this guy is “one thousand years old” and how else would you expect him to talk? I always imagined that this is being sung by one of Tolkien’s Ents, because “some have forgotten the flower of speech and walks through the garden where I go to defend…” Sounds very Entish to me!
Track Eleven: No One Knows My Plan
If I ever required a “thinking song,” this would be it. The horns are strong, the rhythm is fast but not too fast, and the lyrics speak to me. “No one understands, no one knows my plan..” But truthfully, we are not starting the second half of the album and this is the only “autumn” reference in all the songs, “why the smell of burning autumn leaves,” and later “sketching out the burning autumn leaves.” But still, this song is another strong reason, I can’t pick a “favorite” from this album. Also, I never believed the “prison cell” was nothing more than any place we can’t extricate ourselves, whether it be a place or situation.
Track Twelve: Dirt Bike
Time to get a bit jazzy and you know, “all hail the dirt bike.” The song is just a “chill jam,” and you can quote me on it. I don’t have a reason for putting those two words together to describe the track, but if you heard the song, you’d know exactly what I meant. And it does have a wonderful Flansburgh guitar solo, where he just talks through the instrument!
Track Thirteen: Destination Moon
I always was and still am fascinated by space exploration, so an upbeat song with directions to get to the Moon? Yes please, I mean it’s all right there, it’s so simple, “By rocket to the moon, By airplane to the rocket, By taxi to the airport, By front door to the taxi, By throwing back the blanket, hanging down the legs.” But the truth to the whole matter is that if you don’t get out of bed, you aren’t going anywhere! Make this your morning alarm… You’ll never be late!
Track Fourteen: A Self Called Nowhere
Balance and transitions. The two Johns have, on this track, created a song that sounds like two completely different songs, melded together to make a third better song. I didn’t take enough psychological courses to really comment on the interpretations of “a self called nowhere,” but if you have a degree and want to explain, I’ll just be here “sitting on the curb” listening to this.
Track Fifteen: Meet James Ensor
“Raise a glass and sit and stare… Appreciate the man,” or his art, because after all he was “Belgium’s famous painter.” This song is another reason why I love TMBG on a whole. It’s an upbeat, simple song that just belongs on this album. Though on a side note, if you don’t know who he is, you should… The man could really paint, just like the two Johns, can really play. (I did it again. And again, sorry, I couldn’t help myself.)
Track Sixteen: Thermostat
This is one of those songs that I just enjoy singing at the top of my lungs, by myself, in an enclosed space, like my car… “Turn it up, turn it down,” it’s all about getting those horns in line and really bringing the “up” and “down” musically. Are you both hot and cold? You must be listening to this track, because it puts you in both temperaments! (See what I did there? Sorry, again I couldn’t help myself.)
Track Seventeen: Window
This is the one track that makes me think it’s a follow up to another track from an earlier album. I know the two songs are barely related except for the “women” and “men” aspect of their lyrics, but this seems like a direct follow up to “Women & Men” off of Flood. That said, I still enjoy “checking out the people in the window,” which is a metaphor for television, right?
Track Eighteen: Out Of Jail
There aren’t a lot of “story” songs on this album, but this one tells a story and who doesn’t love a good story in a nice upbeat rock song, complete with a bridge that says “didn’t want to be a slave?” And let’s face it… “It was like a TV show, the way she stole that car…” This is just a fun romp, if you ask me!
Track Nineteen: Stomp Box
Ready to get your grunge on? The “Stomp Box” is here for you. For an album released in 1994, this seems to be the only grunge influence from the time on the album, and even at that, they still have some great horns playing with the distorted guitars. A fine balance that is underutilized in music!
Track Twenty: The End of the Tour
And now for a more “classic” TMBG song with Linnell singing to us about what happens “when the road disappears.” And being that the last track of the album is about the “end of the tour,” is just further proof that you need to listen to this start to finish, from track one to track twenty! Just do it already, because this uplifting folk-ish type song is a positive note to go out on.
There you have it. I’ve run down every song, while listening to the album, without stopping and I all I have to show for it is nothing but love for every song and only one reference to “autumn.” So, again, back to the one of the reasons I was writing this post in the first place, to answer that one question, which is why is this my November album, every year without fail?
I can’t tell you when I first heard the album, so that’s not it. The album itself isn’t really an autumnal album, but maybe it’s in the whole. Perhaps looking at it song by song, was the wrong approach, although it was fun for me. I consume this album as an album. It is both upbeat and mellow at times, just like November is both mild and cold, yet in both cases, the two different aspects make up the whole.
The album as a whole experience is not unlike a road trip, or any trip for that matter. There will be ups and downs and sidewayses (I made that up, but it works). You’ll see and hear new things, have conversations both important and otherwise, require directions or at least a sense of direction and look through some kind of window at people; your car window, the plane window if you’re lucky enough to get a window seat, the glass of your phone or tablet into the people of cyberspace, you get the point. And that’s just my take.
As trips go, this album is quite the positive experience overall. It starts fresh and ends on a slightly reflective note. It’s also an album of a bygone era, the album era, where artists such as the two Johns took us on a journey from the first track through the last. But it still doesn’t answer the question.
I have done the best I can do, to peel back the cover of my subconscious and attempt to decipher why every November without fail, John Henry by They Might Be Giants gets played by me more often than any other album. But, I’m not complaining. I do love this album, from beginning to end, without shuffle.
So now it’s time to turn the tables on you. Don’t worry, it’s just two harmless questions. One, have you heard John Henry (all of it, listened with shuffle off from beginning to end)? And two, do you have a November album? Or at least some album that you seasonally listen to more than any other?
Let me know and a Happy November to you all!
(A very special shout out to guest editor Paula from the Tell Me Stories Podcast, check it out!)