When I started this project, I have to admit there was one album that I was looking forward to in particular.
Apollo 18 was my entry into They Might Be Giants fandom, but I’ve somehow managed to continuously ignore it for an exceptional number of years. It’s not like Pink or Lincoln where I’ve purposely gone out of my way to avoid it; it was just continually pushed aside in lieu of other works. And really, that sums up a lot about Apollo 18 – I’ve always felt it’s gotten a bum deal in the grand scheme of their discography.
Released in 1992, the album marked a major evolution in the sound of the band. Gone were the synth brass and drum machine, replaced instead with much more traditional, richer rock instrumentation. In fact, this was the first album that John and John toured with an honest-to-goodness backing band (to the consternation of some fans, of course).
So why a bum deal?
For me, I think it comes down to a lack of a headliner, such as it is. When people think back on Apollo 18, the only standout track a lot of people identify is “Fingertips,” which is hardly a song at all (and far from the best thing on the album).
In my memories, however, the album was solid and a real stepping stone in the evolution of TMBG’s catalog.
So would those memories hold up upon a revisit?
I Don’t Want to Change Your Mind
Apollo 18 kicks off with a message to the listener that it is not fucking around. “Dig My Grave,” in contrast to the the somewhat whimsical theme to Flood, launches with force and does not look back. After the opening guitar lick, the drums and guitar kick in with a vengeance. Quickly matched with the distorted vocals, the entire track seems a statement about this not being the TMBG sound you think you know.
From here, the rock intensity dials down a notch for “I Palindrome I” and something more familiar in terms of TMBG fare. Though the instrumentation may have changed, the lyrical wit of “Palindrome” combined with undeniably catchy melodic hooks tells you that this is very much a They Might Be Giants tune at its core.
“She’s Actual Size” follows up “Palindrome”, keeping up TMBG’s habit of shuffling the instrumentation, this time with an arrangement of saxophone and drums. Even with the more rock-focused sound of the album, the band still keeps their love of variety intact.
“Size” gives way to “My Evil Twin,” which after multiple listens to the album over the past week has secured its spot as the song most firmly lodged in my head throughout the day. Whether it’s the central guitar hook or plaintive, almost yearning lyrics, the song is a viciously effective earworm. It’s also interesting from a “historical” perspective, as its one of the rare songs that both Johns worked on together. Whereas the duo usually tackled tracks separately, in this case John L. wrote the tune and John F. crafted the lyrics to go over it.
The next track up is “Mammal,” which in addition to being a good song in general also gives us a glimpse into TMBG’s future. The idea of setting what is, essentially, rather dry scientific information to catchy tunes is an idea the band returns to multiple times over the years, ultimately culminating in their children’s albums nearly two decades later.
“Statue Got Me High,”, the sixth track on the album, was released as the first single and understandably so. Listening to it again, this track stands as almost a summation of everything this album sets out to accomplish wrapped up in a 2:15 package. Heavy guitar mixed with the classic TMBG accordion and some jaunty sax all layered with upbeat, kind-of-grim lyrics. This, to me, is the iconic song of the Apollo 18 years.
In the process of researching this piece, I also made a mind-blowing discovery: there is a video for “Statue Got Me High” that I never knew existed. I thought the era of TMBG video insanity ended with Flood, so finding this is like discovering a new vein of gold at the bottom of a sunken mine.
Well, maybe just one nugget of gold. But let me have this feeling.
I mention the kind-of-grim lyrics of “Statue” to bring up another point: Apollo 18 is darker in tone than its predecessors, a thread that carries through the entire album. It’s a bit of return to the Lincoln-era sense of moroseness. TMBG has a way of taking fairly dark lyrics and turning them into catchy, energetic tunes and that is embodied in much of Apollo 18‘s offerings.
“Narrow Your Eyes,” one of my favorite tracks on the album, balances those elements masterfully. Another look at the love from the wrong side, the track never sinks into the glumness of its subject. It always bothered me back in the early 90s that this song wasn’t somehow more popular, and coming back to it today I still think its painfully underrated.
I’d be remiss to talk about Apollo 18 and not talk about “Fingertips,” which as I mentioned above is often the song most people remember. “Fingertips” is not a song per se, but a collection of 21 fragments of songs that bounce from genre and genre and range in length from a few seconds to just under a minute. “Fingertips” is manifestly in the spirit of experimentation TMBG are so fond of, and this was one of their first experiments that extended beyond the music itself. In a bit of a post-modern twist, the 21 pieces of the song are set as different tracks on the album so that, when combined with new-fangled “shuffle” feature on CD players circa 1992, the little snippets would come up in random order and placement between the other, more “traditional” tracks.
It’s a fascinating snapshot of a different time. It’s fun, and there is no denying the individual snippets have some true gems. But in a world of massive playlists and endless randomness, it definitely loses some punch.
Apollo 18 wraps up with “Space Suit”, which is my personal favorite track on the entire album. It’s unique, to be sure – it’s the first instrumental-only track released in their first four albums. I don’t even know exactly how I would define it, either – it’s not something you can plug easily into a single genre (which is not uncommon for TMBG, to be sure). It’s spacey, a little dreamy, and always strikes me as a bit wistful.
And again, digging more into the album, I learned some fascinating new things that put the track into new perspective. Despite being the last track on their fourth album, “Space Suit” turns out to be the very first song TMBG ever created together. John F. wrote it to use chords he had learned from his guitar instructor in the early 80s, and it was one of the songs played at their very first live show (under their original name, El Grupo De Rock and Roll). I find something very appropriate about taking their original song, putting it to a new arrangement, and using it to close an album that feels like such a big step forward for the evolution of their sound.
Just a Guy Made of Dots and Lines
My eager memories of Apollo 18 were rewarded, and after listening through it many times over the past week or so, I’m still ready to listen to it many more. The album has a more unified sound than the earlier works, but even with that it still manages to maintain a wild range of experimentation from track to track. Even the tracks I’d long since filed away as “forgettable” offered up new things upon my return to them. This is a solid album you can put on from start to finish – or shuffle, if you want the true “Fingertips” experience – and enjoy. The growth and change They Might Be Giants delve into here deepens even more as they head into their next album, John Henry.