For a lot of people of my generation (The Oregon Trail Generation, thanks), I suspect their first real introduction to They Might Be Giants came in the form of two music videos on Tiny Toon Adventures. In a 1991 episode parodying MTV – which at the time still showed actual music videos – Tiny Toons featured animations to go along with “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)” and “Particle Man,” both tracks off TMBG’s most recent album, Flood.
(in hindsight, this video is super, super wrong in so many ways)
I can’t say for sure whether this episode generated any long-term TMBG fans, but it definitely put them into the popular lexicon of anybody watching after-school cartoons.
And that’s pretty emblematic of Flood – if you find someone who only has a passing familiarity with They Might Be Giants, they are likely to name a song from Flood as the reason why. “Istanbul,” “Particle Man,” “Birdhouse in Your Soul”… these are all iconic TMBG songs that have transcended their own fandom and into pop culture at large.
When I began my exploration of TMBG in earnest, Flood was the *the* album everyone talked about. The album marks an evolution of the band’s sound, and because of the background of its production that should really come as no surprise. Following the success of Lincoln, TMBG was picked up by their first major label (Elektra) and given greater creative control over the production than they’d ever had before. That, combined with the better resources of a bigger label, let John and John delve into some new musical territory while still giving a more polished feel overall.
Why Was The World In Love Again?
Coming back to Flood lacked any of the trepidation of my previous two revisits as I really have nothing but fond memories of the album in general. In those many rides across the long stretches of northern Baltimore county, Flood was a pretty constant soundtrack. Despite that, there were still plenty of tracks that I realized I hadn’t given a listen in a very, very long time.
The album kicks off with “Theme from Flood,” which is a short little choral number heralding in the arrival of TMBG’s brand-new album for 1990. Goofy, yes; but it really does put you in the mindset that you are about to dive into something meant to be an experience taken as a whole. Contrast that with the unstructured nature of Pink and Lincoln, and it’s a good harbinger of things to come.
The theme gives way to “Birdhouse In Your Soul,” which remains as brilliant a track today as it did the day it was released. The opening vocal of John L set against the subdued horns and sharp base giving way to the rising trill of the synthesizer and drums still gives me a tingle of excitement every time I hear it. Once the driving pulse of the primary refrain hits, the song keeps up a boundless energy that abates for only a mere moment midway through, only to return even stronger for the final stretch.
“Birdhouse” is also a great example of what is probably a key part of TMBG fandom – esoteric references that fuel endless speculation about what the songs are really about. I won’t dive into trying to interpret the deeper meaning behind “Birdhouse” here, but I know that as a teen I went scrambling to find out what the heck the Longines Symphonette was. Beyond just entertaining me, TMBG has taught me a lot more random trivia over the years than I’d probably care to admit.
A final note about “Birdhouse” – the music video for it is perhaps the greatest thing to come out of the year 1990. It’s a visual typhoon that, to me, hits the pinnacle of TMBG’s particular video-making style, and somehow captures the essence of that moment in history when the 80s hadn’t quite let go, but the 90s were looming large on the horizon.
Moving on from “Birdhouse”, the thing that struck me at first listen is, despite being the songs everyone associates with them, “Istanbul” and “Particle Man” are far from TMBG’s best songs. They aren’t even the best tracks on the album. They are unquestionably fun songs, but there are some gems on Flood that have long been overshadowed by their more popular brethren.
“Dead”, the fifth track on Flood, is a unique beast among the first three TMBG albums – vocals set to piano. No synth here, no accordion; just John and the keyboard. A mournful lament about the sorry state of things done and undone, “Dead” has some truly lovely chord progressions that shine through. When I eventually ended up in college studying music theory (instead of math – thanks, WAC!), “Dead” was a song I gravitated back to for analysis thanks to its arrangement.
“Someone Keeps Moving My Chair”, a bit later on the album, is another fun romp that this time resonates for more of a lyrical reason. While I know I said I wasn’t going to dwell on interpretations, this one is a pretty cut and dry look at focusing on minutiae in the face of a wall of general awfulness.
I think we’ve all been Mr. Horrible at some point in our lives. As a teen the idea appealed to me that you could just shut out everything else and keep it focused on the mundane. As an adult, with adult responsibilities and adult concerns and adult shirts, I realize it’s more an unfortunate inevitability. Sometimes too much is too much, and somebody is going to get yelled at for moving my damn chair.
There were, over the years, two songs off of Flood that I didn’t hold in such fond regard. “Letterbox” and “Hearing Aid.” Again, though the cloudy mist of memory I couldn’t tell you exactly what it was that turned me off from either of them, I just knew that they were on my skip list. Coming back to them now, I’m met with two divergent outcomes.
Listening again to “Letterbox,” I have little trouble understanding why teenage me was not a fan. It’s a folksy song with a simplistic chord progression backing the whole thing. I was not big on folksiness, and if a song didn’t have a good hook I was probably not much on giving it the time of day.
Revisiting it now, I find that my attitude towards “Letterbox” and its folksiness has softened over the years. It’s catchier than I think I ever gave it credit for, and frankly at a minute and change it’s not like it’s asking for a big commitment from the listener in the first place. I’ve found myself humming it pretty often over the last few days which certainly says something. I won’t say “Letterbox” will be on my go-to list in the future, but it’s earned a reprieve from the skip list.
“Hearing Aid,” on the other hand, is still firmly entrenched there. I didn’t like it then, I still don’t like it now. From the tinny synth horns to the off-kilter crooning vocals, there is nothing in this track that has ever appealed to me. To top it off, at 3:27, it’s also the longest song on the entire album which just adds a bit of insult to the injury.
Flood wraps up with “Road Movie to Berlin,” a relatively somber tune to close out the otherwise high-energy album. It works here, putting a solid close on the whole arc of the experience. As I was doing some research about the album, I discovered that after they released the album, TMBG realized they had left an entire verse out of the song by accident. They later restored it in their “Live in Australia” recording of the album (theoretically available from their website, but currently broken).
After many listens over many days, Flood remains as solid an album now as it did then. As an entry point into the musical catalog of They Might Be Giants, it’s a great point of entry. There’s a timelessness to Flood, but to me it also marks the beginning of the evolution of TMBG’s sound, which from this point on grows in new and interesting ways with each subsequent album.
Speaking of which, next up we have Apollo 18 and a big change for the band…