“Why is the world in love again? Why are we marching hand-in-hand? Why are the ocean levels rising up? It’s a brand new record for 1990. They Might Be Giants’ brand new album: Flood.”
Monday January 15th 1990 was a monumental date in the career of Brooklyn’s duo of Johns – Linnell and Flansburgh – as it saw their first major studio album released. Having formed in 1982 and been bubbling under as a group with a loyal cult following, their third LP – Flood – marked their first taste of mainstream success.
As well as spending 22 weeks in total on the US Billboard album charts, Flood also gave us what must be considered They Might Be Giants’ signature track, ‘Birdhouse In Your Soul’, which reached #3 in America’s Modern Rock Tracks chart, as well as #6 here in the UK. Although you may not actually know – or think you know – much of their work, ‘Birdhouse In Your Soul’ is truly the band’s anthem, which is instantly recognisable within just a few notes.
In fact, it’s perhaps appropriate that it appeared on Flood, as the album is a microcosm of everything that makes They Might Be Giants who they are – you couldn’t ask for a more representative snapshot of them as a musical force. Here, we get use of unreliable narrators, wordplay and flights of surrealist fantasy, social commentary, mythology, tongue twisting lyrics, pop culture references, accordions, shifts in musical styles, a cover of a song which they’ve made their own, and surprisingly complex arrangements.
The Johns ended up spending two-thirds of the budget for the album on just four of the tracks – ‘Birdhouse In Your Soul’, ‘Istanbul (Not Constantinople)’, ‘We Want A Rock’, and ‘Your Racist Friend’ – which shows just how focused they were on bringing their ‘A’ Game to their first work in a professional multitrack studio, and using the various new facilities and production techniques to hone the particular sound they wanted to deliver. This was their new musical playground and laboratory, and the Johns were definitely ready to experiment.
One of the great joys of They Might Be Giants is that they manage to pack so much into every single album. Most of their songs get in, do what they mean to do, and then get out again – there’s no waste, no fat, every song is no longer than it needs to be, which means that they can get far more tracks onto each release. It means that hey have a chance to show off their diversity, and while each individual style they elect to use may not be to your personal taste, there will be another one along in a couple of minutes or so.
Flood is a case in point, as in just 43 minutes 24 seconds, they fit in a total of 19 tracks of varying lengths, at a rate which leaves the listener quite breathless, but in the best possible way. The opening track – ‘Theme From Flood’ – is not only the shortest on the album, at just 27 seconds, but also atypical in that neither of the Johns takes the vocals. Instead, Marion Beckenstein and Joel Mitchell deliver a close harmony crescendo which heralds the arrival of They Might Be Giants into the big leagues, in a triumphant, valedictory choral piece.
The Johns know how to give the people what they want, so they waste no time by taking us directly into ‘Birdhouse In Your Soul’, which is straight up one of the most magnificent slices of joyous, ebullient pop ever. The genesis of the song accounts for a lot of its lyrical quirkiness, as the melody had actually been written years earlier, with the words having to be shoehorned in to fit. The track itself is written from the perspective of a blue-coloured, canary-shaped nightlight in the corner of a room, which is definitely a unique viewpoint to adopt.
Despite coming in at just a shade under three-and-a-half minutes – the second longest track on the whole album – there are no less than 18 key changes throughout, which is a breakneck pace for so many shifts. Despite Linnell having previously said that it feels like the lyrics are placeholders for something to come along later, this is They Might Be Giants at their most playful and inventive, by throwing in references to Jason And The Argonauts alongside classical music radio show The Longines Symphonette.
It also manages to evoke The Lovin’ Spoonful’s ‘Summer In The City’, not just in terms of the chord progressions and rhythms used, but also the car horn-like sounds recalling the traffic in the 1960s track. It’s such a densely-layered, complex song which stands up to repeat listening, and is effortlessly catchy – almost infuriatingly so, in fact. This really is their trademark song, and has firmly become part of pop culture, cropping up in everything from a 2010 TV ad for Clarks Shoes, to Pushing Daisies, and even Peter Kay’s Car Share.
‘My Lucky Ball & Chain’ is a country & western-infused song of loss and regret, which happens to be surprisingly upbeat and uptempo, given its subject matter. Showing once again the band’s crossover appeal, Terry Pratchett’s novel Lords And Ladies actually incorporated some of the lyrics into a conversation between two characters. If Terry Pratchett is one of your fans, then you know you’re doing something right, and in Soul Music, he named a band in Discworld as We’re Certainly Dwarfs, in homage to them.
’Istanbul (Not Constantinople)’ is a cover of the song which was originally recorded in 1953 by The Four Lads, and has become a popular staple of They Might Be Giants’ shows. It has gone on to turn up in episodes of The Simpsons, Tiny Toon Adventures, and Netflix’s The Umbrella Academy as backing for a fight scene in a coffee shop. The next track, ‘Dead’, deals with the rather off-the-wall notion of being reincarnated as a bag of groceries, and atoning for one’s past misdeeds, to the strains of Proclaimers-esque vocal interplay.
‘Your Racist Friend’ is perhaps the most serious of all the tracks on Flood, dealing with the issue of bigotry, played out against the backdrop of a social conflict at a party. In spite of the subject matter, it still has a relatively upbeat, poppy feel about it at times, mixed in with a grittier rock sound. The following track, ‘Particle Man’, is a sudden shift of gears, and feels like a Lear-esque nonsense song, which also riffs off the lyrics of the 1960s Spider-Man cartoon, with the lines “Particle Man, Particle Man, doing the things a particle can”.
‘Twisting’ is a piece of organ-heavy pop-rock that makes explicit reference to some of the band’s musical influences, obscure groups Young Fresh Fellows and the dB’s. Amongst the odd lyrics of ‘We Want A Rock’ espousing the idea of everyone wanting prosthetic foreheads and rocks to wind string around, there’s actually a metaphor at play, talking about people lost in the wilderness, and being denied their needs by others.
’Someone Keeps Moving My Chair’ tells us about the focus which people can put upon trivial concerns in a world where all around is going rapidly to Hell. Meanwhile, the lazy-ish, faux-brass sound of ‘Hearing Aid’ lays underneath a tale of someone stuck in a miserable work environment. ‘Minimum Wage’ is another radical tonal and stylistic leap, as it takes us into something which could’ve almost been ripped from a classic Western, with its whipcrack and a big, expansive instrumental sound, yet all played out on synths.
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The rapid-fire, staccato ‘Letterbox’ – a song previously in their repertoire before being put to tape here – whips along at a brisk pace, and before we know it, we’re into ‘Whistling In The Dark’, a bass drum-heavy ditty about mind control and being in jail, amongst other dark topics which are all in stark contrast to the almost shanty-like composition. The dirty, almost tainted swing-style nature of ‘Hot Cha!’ gives us another cryptic track, and the revelation the song was named after a wooden horse in a board game only muddies the story still further.
The jauntiness of the folksy ’Women & Men’ is the inverse of what’s actually a rather dispassionate, detached look at reproduction and the spread of humanity across the globe. ‘Sapphire Bullets Of Pure Love’ is again another track that was reworked for inclusion in Flood, and is told from the perspective of someone on the run from the law. Next up, the penultimate track is They Might Be Giants’ attempt to have a truly self-referential song, their own equivalent of ‘(Theme From) The Monkees’.
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‘They Might Be Giants’ is another voyage into the surreal imagery at which the band indisputably excels, with talk of “tabloid footprints in your hair”, and being “Dr. Spock’s back-up band” (that’s renowned paediatrician Benjamin, and not the half-Vulcan science officer from Star Trek). Rounding things out is ‘Road Movie To Berlin’, which brings to mind the Road To… movies starring Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, and Dorothy Lamour. It also feels oddly dated, written at a time when the Berlin Wall still stood, and seemed as if it always would, only to topple just under two years after release.
They Might Be Giants are currently marking Flood’s 30th anniversary by touring selected US cities between January and May 2020, the majority of which have sold out. Along with songs spanning their entire career, the Johns will be playing the whole of Flood, but will be varying the order of the tracks as if on shuffle, in order to present a different experience every single night. After nearly four decades, it just demonstrates how much of a creative powerhouse they are, and will hopefully continue to be for many more years to come.
In the words of their eponymous track, “We can’t be silent, ‘cause They Might Be Giants, and what are we gonna do unless they are?” – Flood goes to show that the Johns absolutely are giants, and that this is one record which, although no longer brand new for 1990, will stand the test of time.