“ONE SMALL STEP FOR MAN
ONE THEY MIGHT BE GIANT LEAP FOR MANKIND”
The above quote – taken from a UK magazine ad promoting the 1992 release of They Might Be Giants’ brand new album, Apollo 18 – managed to capture both the theme and spirit of their latest endeavour, including how much of a voyage into the great unknown it was, on which they were embarking.
Having worked together for ten years by this point, the duo of Brooklyn-based John Linnell and John Flansburgh were now at a turning point in their careers, following their 1990 release – Flood – catapulting them into the mainstream, in no small part thanks to the hit that was ‘Birdhouse In Your Soul’. The Johns set to work on what was to be Apollo 18, an undertaking described by the pair in a promotional video for its launch as “that difficult fourth album”.
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The band’s label – Elektra – had plans to try and capitalise on their success, which included efforts to have their next studio album produced by Elvis Costello, who was not only aware of their work, but also happened to be something of an admirer. Linnell and Flansburgh both deeply respected Costello, but felt railroaded into working with him, which they felt might not be a productive experience, as the duo may be too intimidated by his presence to actually produce their best work.
As a result, the Johns elected instead to go it alone and self-produce their next release, with their pushing back against the label’s attempts to force Costello onto them driving a wedge between the artists and Elektra. The growing divide was not helped by their refusal to use a full backing band for the recordings; although they subsequently did this for the first time as part of the accompanying ‘Don’t Tread On The Cut-Up Snake World Tour’, which was met with some resistance from hardcore fans, who boycotted shows, reacting in rather a similar way to the backlash when Dylan went electric.
The Johns came up with the title Apollo 18 for their follow-up to Flood, and having decided upon using the name of an aborted lunar mission – with the US Moon landings ending after December 1972’s Apollo 17 – they went to the NASA Archive Center, with the aim of seeking out suitable space-themed imagery to use for promotional materials and cover art. It was this research visit which actually ended up with a rather unexpected result, placing They Might Be Giants into a position of prominence and status which they could never have foreseen.
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NASA staff were intrigued by what they were up to, so after explaining who they were, what they were looking for, and that they were working on an album and tour for 1992, the pair were informed that it would coincide with International Space Year; as they would be going around the world to play concerts, it would be an ideal opportunity to promote ISY, a global event coordinated through NASA to celebrate human achievement in space exploration, and promote a movement for international collaboration in space.
The end result of this was that They Might Be Giants became official musical ambassadors (or ‘spokesband’) for ISY, with the event’s logo being included on Apollo 18’s rear cover. As well as space imagery being used in the official video for the track ‘The Statue Got Me High’, an Apollo lunar lander was featured on the cover, along with an illustration of a whale being attacked by a squid, which was taken from the cover of an August 1958 issue of Fate Magazine; the art direction for Apollo 18 was credited to Rolf Conant, which was in actuality a pseudonym for Flansburgh.
Apollo 18 kicks off with ‘Dig My Grave’, a track which opens up with a seemingly innocuous enough repeated guitar riff, before suddenly jumping into full-blown rock, which acts as a shock to the system after the lighter, cleaner pop of Flood. The dirtier sound is also aided by the vocals being recorded through a guitar fuzz box, which makes them distorted. ‘Dig My Grave’ visits some of TMBG’s favourite themes, namely death and mortality, and these do crop up again during the remainder of the album.
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The rat-a-tat-tat drum beat leading us into ‘I Palindrome I’ heralds the start of a song which is in equal turns dark, clever and playful. As well as working in a reference to the ancient symbol of the ouroboros, it also manages to use a number of palindromic devices – for example, the backing vocals on the track include “Man o nam” and “Egad, a base tone denotes a bad age”. An antimetabole – a palindrome which consists of words, rather than letters – occurs with the lyrics “Son, I am able she said, though you scare me. Watch, said I, beloved, I said, watch me scare you though. Said she, able am I, Son”.
The bridge takes the form of a musical palindrome, known as a retrograde canon or crab canon, and the length of the song is also a numerical palindrome, running to 2:22, showing just how much careful thought and effort has gone into crafting the track and making its title more than just a catchy turn of phrase (as well as being yet another antimetabole). Death is also present once again, as the very first line is about a son waiting for his mother’s passing to get an inheritance, only later to reflect that he ultimately waits the exact same fate from his offspring, making it cyclical.
’She’s Actual Size’ plays with the phrase which is often seen engraved on American car mirrors about objects being closer than they appear, and talks about leaving somebody behind who is confident and intimidating. In ‘My Evil Twin’, there is a suggestion that the malevolent doppelgänger mentioned in the lyrics may not actually exist, and could be the result of some form of divergent or split personality, which suggests a form of avoidance of personal responsibility by conjuring up an ‘evil twin’ avatar to take all the blame.
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With the Johns having released several educational albums for kids from 2002 onwards, ‘Mammal’ feels like it presages all that, giving a roll call of the common features of warm-blooded, lactating vertebrates, as well as members of that group. A rapid change of gears comes with ‘The Statue Got Me High’, an absolute feel good rocker of a piece, which has the subject of the track experiencing a form of epiphany or intense rapture after viewing a public sculpture, getting an exquisite high off the experience.
The track is yet another demonstration of just how clever the Johns are, using source material you might not expect a band to utilise. In this case, the inspiration of the song comes from Don Giovanni by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Lorenzo Da Ponte; the opera is based on Molière‘s five-act comedy Dom Juan ou le Festin de pierre, where the lead invites the statue of a man whom he recently killed to dinner, resulting in Dom (or Don) Juan being lead to Hell.
‘Spider’ is a bit of an oddity, at least insofar as anything from TMBG can be described in that vein. Bringing to mind either an off-kilter superhero or a Kaiju feature, and lasting just 50 seconds, the piece is mostly percussive and vocal, but it still manages to paint a vivid picture in that brief span. With ‘The Guitar (The Lion Sleeps Tonight)’, Linnell and Flansburgh link up with Laura Cantrell, a country singer and songwriter, who provides guest vocals on those parts of the track which play around with ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight’ by The Tokens, to conjure images of a lion on the phone, or at the controls of a silver spaceship.
Another unexpected cultural reference crops up in ‘Dinner Bell’, bringing up Ivan Pavlov’s experiments with classical conditioning of dogs, who would salivate at the sound of a bell, after having it linked with food being served. Linnell is worthy of a special mention for powering through 59 words in a span of just 11 seconds, in a feat of verbal dexterity. The use is also made of Linnell imitating recordings of himself saying words backwards, which are then reversed, creating an usual distorted effect.
‘Narrow Your Eyes’ is an upbeat yet melancholy tune, with the subject matter being the breakup of a relationship,; the singer opines that he should “toast the sad cold fact” that his love with his soon-to-be ex is “never coming back”. In ‘Hall Of Heads’, we have a real eclectic mix of styles, starting out with country-style electric guitar, before moving to a rather eerie-sounding violin-led segment, and then crashing into discordant sax; the lyrics enter macabre territory, belied by the poppy vocal work and harmonies.
‘Which Describes How You’re Feeling’ has what seems to be a deceptively simple arrangement in comparison to the rest of the album, relying on simple electric organ and occasional electric guitar, but still has room for more reversed vocals, as well as leaving plenty of space for interpretation in what may be more than mere clever wordplay. ‘See The Constellation’ takes a sample of Dee Dee Ramone from the very start of the Ramones’ ‘Commando’, using it as punctuation throughout to drive the track forward with real momentum.
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With ‘If I Wasn’t Shy’, we have a lament to all the things that someone would do if they were able to not be overcome by a crippling lack of self-confidence. Death and mortality return in ‘Turn Around’, with elements of the supernatural, dealing with someone receiving phone calls from a person they had killed, finding a human skull on the ground, and being buried alive; the Johns manage to counterpoint any grim overtones with the sheer jauntiness of the melody, using an accordion, along with vocal stylings reminiscent of ‘Chattanooga Choo Choo’.
‘Hypnotist Of Ladies’ is a track which has perhaps suffered from a shifting climate over the last three decades in terms of sexual politics and the #MeToo movement, as what was no doubt intended to be an innocuous enough set of lyrics at the time now has some rather uncomfortable connotations. Apollo 18 has – rather suitably – a total of 18 tracks listed; however, the track listed as ‘Fingertips’ is in reality a collection of 21 disparate song fragments, which straddle all different styles and genres, showing off their versatility, and providing a tapestry or cascade of musical bursts.
Consisting of everything from Bluegrass to hi-NRG pop, and a particularly vicious parody of Morrissey, ‘Fingertips’ was to be an idea intended to make use of the ‘shuffle’ button on CD players, meaning that these 21 different snippets would turn up at random to punctuate the song sequence, creating what was intended to be a variable sonic collage of these refrains. In some territories, however, a mastering error meant all 21 of the ‘Fingertips’ song fragments were mastered as a single track, which is a shame, as it robbed the album of some of its experimental spirit.
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Rounding out Apollo 18 is the aptly-named ‘Space Suit’, the combination of French bal-musette accordion music with an electric guitar, along with the swoops and oscillations of the Moog synthesiser, creating a mellow yet also rather ethereal instrumental piece. In all, Apollo 18 is the product of a band who are exploring their creativity, building on the very solid foundations of Flood, while not being bound by or beholden to it; the very fact that they had refused to just deliver more of the same caused a headache for their label, especially as it failed to match the previous album’s success.
Despite Elektra’s reservations about the sales figures, Apollo 18 has become a firm favourite in They Might Be Giants’ back catalogue, to such an extent that to commemorate its 20th anniversary back in 2012, fans created a series of interactive fiction games themed around all the tracks, known as The IF Tribute Album: Apollo 18+20. Apollo 18 certainly shows us a band at a turning point, on the very cusp of the next phase of their development and delivering us anything but a “difficult fourth album” after all.
Apollo 18 was released on 24th March 1992.