Having a glass of W.L. Weller while writing about They Might Be Giants. I’m pretty sure this is how Hemingway used to do it.
Released January 15, 1990, Flood was the third record for the band, the first to garner any widespread exposure, and the source of their highest charting single “Birdhouse In Your Soul,” an upbeat bit of silliness told from the perspective of a nightlight. The album announced itself in grandiose fashion with a title placard of sorts, the twenty-seven second “Theme From Flood,” letting us know that “It’s a brand new record for 1990, They Might Be Giants’ brand new album, Flood!”
This album was an eye opener for me. Despite growing up on a lot of Top 40 pop music, by my late teens I’d become a bit morose, a bit too serious about things, about life in general. I was listening to a lot of Depeche Mode, The Smiths, The Cure. I wasn’t having a lot of fun, which is stupid, because late teens and twenties is when you’re supposed to be having the most fun, but no one told me this and I hadn’t figured it out on my own. I recall watching MTV at some point in 1990 and seeing the insane animation/claymation video for “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)” and being stunned. First off, it was like no rock video I’d ever seen before. Second, people were actually using music to have fun without being mainstream schlock.
Their two prior albums had escaped my attention, so I had no idea what Flood would sound like, but I bought it off the strength of the one song/video. Immediately, I was a fan for life. Part of it was the upbeat nature of the music itself, all major key stuff with peppy tempos. Part of it was the brevity of the songs – there are nineteen tracks on the CD and the longest comes in under three-and-a-half minutes (and many of them are under two minutes). But the biggest part was the wordplay and the silliness.
I can’t think of another band who can boast a charting single about a nightlight. I’m guessing this is likely because nightlights are tough to write about in a way that captures the attention for over three minutes. But with lines like…
There’s a picture opposite me
of my primitive ancestry
that 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…
…it’s definitely much easier to keep the audience engaged.
And there’s the O’Henry quality of some of the songs: “Twistin’” is an upbeat 1960s style garage-rock/dance number pumped along by what sounds like a Farfisa, with lines like, “She wants to see you again, Twistin’, Twistin,” before subtly adding the qualifier with backing vocals, “Twistin’ in the wind.” Subsequent listens reveal the line, “[She] blew out your pilot light and made a wish…” It is simultaneously one of the happiest sounding breakup songs ever and one of the darkest and most morbid.
They Might Be Giants wrote about things no one else wrote about. The song “Particle Man” is comic book rock about a quartet of superheroes and supervillains, including the hapless Person Man. There’s a song about dead end jobs called “Hearing Aid” and one about population growth and suburban sprawl called “Women And Men.” “Whistling In The Dark” is about having an argument with your cellmate. These topics, coupled with the whimsy with which they were conveyed, made it difficult to achieve widespread crossover success, but by being true to their own vision, John Linnell and John Flansburgh have been able to build a large and loyal fanbase over the past 30 years.
Flood was my gateway drug to They Might Be Giants, as it was for a lot of people. In addition to getting some airplay on MTV, they also crossed over to the children’s markets with the Tiny Toons adaptations of both “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)” and “Particle Man.”
Their music, intentionally or not, appeals to both children and (a certain type of) adults. In the 27 years since this album and the videos were released, some of those children have grown up and had kids of their own, a self-perpetuating fanbase for this unusually prolific band. I know I’ve been a fan since I first heard Flood, having seen them live a dozen times and bought myriad albums. And the record remains an excellent introduction to the band, forty-three minutes of pop nonsense that nonetheless showcases excellent songwriting, musicianship, and a keen sense of humor. Where else can you get songs about prosthetic foreheads or about being reincarnated as a bag of groceries? You just can’t.