Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Leave the night light on...

How many hit records can you name whose lyrics are all about a night light?

I can name one: "Birdhouse in your Soul" by They Might Be Giants.

They Might Be Giants are a duo of New Yorkers John Linnell and John Flansburgh who got their start in music with an ingenious idea: record a song every day, record it to an answering machine, attach said answering machine to a local New York state phone number and charge people to call it and hear the song.

The Dial-a-Song idea influenced their songwriting. It meant the songs had to be short, as catchy as possible and and as clearly articulated as possible so as to be properly heard down a phone line. Catchy, in so much as they warrant repeated listens and you don't get tired of them. The songs are clever enough that detail keeps unraveling in every listen.

"Birdhouse..." is classic TMBG: If you have a musicological bent, there is heaps to learn and appreciate, and yet it is charming enough to be appealing to children. It's genius.

And yes this is a song about a night light. One with a blue canary on it.

"Blue canary.in the outlet by the light switch
Who watches over you..."

The cleverness of the lyrics is offset by the bouncy music driven by their ever faithful drum machine. Lay upon layer of keyboards and a sneaky accordion snuck in there as well.

Written from the point of view of the night light itself, it makes an astonishing assessment of its abilities in the second verse:

"There's a picture opposite me
Of my primitive ancestry
Which stood on rocky shores and kept the beaches shipwreck free
Though I respect that a lot
I'd be fired if that were my job
After killing Jason off and countless screaming Argonauts..."

Comparing a nightlight to a lighthouse and to the various functions they perform, where one keeps ships safe from real dangers and the other keeps a little person safe from (in some cases) imagined dangers is surreal. At the same time it's a viewpoint that has completely escaped me previously.

It's very clever stuff. Despite only being three minutes long, there's so much going on that you more than get your money's worth.

This is regarded as one of They Might Be Giants' finest songs, along side a rich catalog of many, many more great songs. If you've never heard them before, start with this one and then dig deeper into their works.

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