Song 85: They Might Be Giants, “They’ll Need a Crane” (1989)

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It wasn’t always this way. Because of a severe aversion to “Particle Man” (an aversion that persists to this day), I wrote off They Might Be Giants for ages. I thought they were the band that they’re so often mislabeled as: a “quirky” novelty act that made silly songs about silly things. They can, of course, be very silly, but never to the detriment of the world they’re building. A worm that plays the drums? Sure. A song sung by The Replacements because they’re The Replacements? Why not. We end up accepting these premises because the two Johns take them seriously.

In the case of “They’ll Need A Crane”, it’s the title that throws you off. You don’t typically see the word “crane” in a song title, especially one about a dissolving partnership. It’s been said that the song is about Linnell’s parents’ divorce, which would make this one hell of a sad memoir. But it’s a beautiful one.

Reducing the characters to simply “Lad” and “Gal” somehow makes this song even more poignant than it already is. I think it makes the story more childlike, making this a kid’s-eye view of a slowly imploding marriage. Similarly, the verses are overly simplistic, as if they’re the Dick and Jane of their own story. Then there’s that bridge, which, with its fragments of conversations and images, brings to mind a kid overhearing his fighting parents. It’s actually one of my favorite bridges ever, mostly because it stops you in your tracks with a melody that creeps upward and a sudden shift to acoustic guitar after a couple minutes of electric and electronic instruments. It’s jarring, and just as you’re getting used to it, the bridge ends with the line “Baby, wait, I didn’t mean to say nightmare.”

It’s funny what can be comforting. In the They Might Be Giants documentary Gigantic, Sarah Vowell talked about calling up Dial-A-Song in a moment of emotional turmoil and being immediately soothed by John Linnell singing about an ant crawling up your back in the nighttime. I have a similar reaction to They Might Be Giants, and I’m not sure why that happens.

I’m glad, after years of friends’ cajoling, that I finally decided to give They Might Be Giants a shot. They’re now one of my favorite things, and I am absolutely convinced that Linnell and John Flansburgh are two of the best living songwriters. The lyrics are equal parts whimsical and devastating, and the melodies are symmetrical in a way that usually only happens in Beatles songs and classical music. They’re still around, and still putting out good music, for which I am grateful.

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