June 19, 2004

Close Textual Analysis (TMBG Department)

I don't put enough artistic stuff on this site, and I'm listening to They Might Be Giants' Lincoln as I type this (but not as you read it!), so I thought I should share an insight I had a couple of weeks ago. (The mark of a classic is that you can listen to it a thousand times and always find something new.)

So: Pay close attention to the segue from "Piece of Dirt" to "Mr. Me." Not only does the singer in PoD find himself "haunted by a spooky man named me," but he talks of "set[ting] his sails" (so long ago that they have revoked his sailor's badge). Then in the next song, Mr. Me--surely that same spooky man--flounders in the misty sea so long that he ends up really, really, really sad. Setting his sails doesn't seem to have worked out too well.

"Mr. Me" does seem to entertain a possibility of redemption through companionship--take his hand and mister, make him glad--but it's hard to see this as likely, given how often and enthusiastically TMBG tell us that he ended up really, really, really sad. Maybe this is a suggestion that the lovelorn wistfulness of "Piece of Dirt" will end badly.

("Mr. Me" has now been reserved as a title for a post on Anscombe's example of what it would be like if the first person were a proper name. Unfortunately I'm not likely to have any thoughts about Anscombe's argument that are coherent enough for a blog post--yeah, that's a low bar--so the title will have to stand alone.)

Posted by Matt Weiner at June 19, 2004 12:48 PM

It must be noted that these songs are preceded by "Where your eyes don't go"-- a song which establishes from the outset that we are mortal and doomed to die. This says, even before the lyrics are expressed in the first person, that Mr Me will inevitably end up sad.

Further, these songs are followed immediately by "Pencil Rain"-- a song that is easy to dismiss as silly and that for some reason I always associate with Don Quixote. The pencils are obviously a symbol of writing-- perhaps even songwriting. So "Pencil Rain" reveals the way by which Mr Me can find solace even in sadness. Yet it doesn't allow him to escape it. There is no "nobler cause than perishing in the pencil rain", but he still perishes.

With more time and enough beer, I think we can reconstruct the message of the entire album.

Posted by: P.D. at June 19, 2004 06:46 PM

Hm, the filthy scarecrow in WYEDG is very reminiscent of the spooky man named me, isn't he? I always took the nobility of perishing in the Pencil Rain to be ironic, and it isn't even in the singer's own voice (rather, that of those who have witnessed all). I'm definitely in favor of your last proposal, anyway.

Posted by: Matt Weiner at June 20, 2004 01:50 PM