They Might Be Giants’ (TMBG) third record, Flood, begins with some regal-sounding horns and a choir of voices rhetorically asking
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.
The ironic little overture, with nods to utopian harmony and worrisome environmental conditions, finishes with a grandiose flourish. It took a while, but the faux grandiosity of the intro ended up catching up to its promise. Flood ended up being going platinum and being TMBG’s masterpiece.
Then it’s on to “Birdhouse in Your Soul” a catchy ditty, the record’s first single, told from the perspective of a nightlight shaped like a birdhouse whose most appropriate place is the soul. Jason and the Argonauts get namechecked along with the avant-garde Longines Symphonette. Then there’s a jaunty little countrified song about lost love complete with banjo and contradictory reminiscences over who really did the loving and who did the losing. And then we’re off to Istanbul, which is most emphatically not Constantinople, a zesty little number beloved of historians and geographers everywhere. In four relatively brief songs, Flood has already veered off into several whimsical dimensions and proved that TMBG was a band who would follow their impish muse wherever it wanted to go.
The two brainy Johns behind the band, Linnell and Flansburgh, synchronistically settled in the same Brooklyn apartment building after starting in the Massachusetts suburbs. They proceeded to carve out a brilliant, zany, subtly sarcastic, surreal, and entirely unique sound. TMBG had already developed an impressively strong cult following with their earlier ’80s efforts, which stood out from their generation of generally angst-ridden indie peers precisely because they were content to wave their brightly colored freak flag by not sounding remotely like anything else. As a friend commented, TMBG sounded like children’s music for adults. Savvy smart-alecks that they were, it’s entirely possible that the Johns realized just how prophetic and pithy so many of these songs would prove to be 30 years later.
Maybe it’s a bit sentimental of me, but I admit that I was a member of their fan club only a few years after Flood came out and enjoyed their lively and delightfully weird musical and visual style. After all these years, I still remember a promotional image depicting a melting snowman in a top hat burning a pile of money, which might have been commentary about their relative marketability within the musical landscape. Or maybe not. Either way, it evidently stuck with me all these years later. There are plenty of people who are deeply fond of this record; this year’s 30th anniversary tour apparently sold out in a hot minute, which would have been a real treat to see. As their theme song for ’90’s comedy TV show Malcolm in the Middle explains, life is unfair.
As playful as the songs on Flood are there is often a lot of very complex and nuanced thinking going on under the surface. Take “Dead” for example. Sung as a sort of round, it’s a circularly themed ditty about the disappointments of reincarnation.
I returned a bag of groceries
accidentally taken off the shelf before the expiration date
I came back as a bag of groceries
accidentally taken off the shelf before the date stamped on myself.
Instead of getting something fun to be reincarnated into, the narrator discovers that he’s returned as a bag of groceries, which becomes a deeply awkward way to spend the afterlife.
It’s an amusingly odd and deadpan image and note the inventive and deadpan twist on the word “return.” It’s pretty Dadaistic. The mundanity of the object the narrator gets reincarnated into has kind of an absurdist philosophical quality, and not necessarily in a good way. What was someone like as a person if their karma rewards them with this kind of an afterlife? The vision of death as a tedious punishment of endless boredom and futility is reminiscent of existentialist fiction. Our perplexed narrator wonders if there were crowds of people bearing torches at his funeral and if they danced on his casket. He won’t utter the word “procrastinate” again given his current situation and frets over the time he enslaved his little brother. The refrain adds a little bit of angst and torpor to conclude this slightly disturbing a cosmic joke: “now it’s over and I’m dead and I haven’t done anything that I want/ Or I’m still alive and there’s nothing I want to do.” Don’t you just hate it when that happens?
The bouncy “Particle Man” has the oompah of a tuba and the singsong catchiness of the kinds of songs that are teaching demonstrations of scientific terms and the alphabet. And it extends the existential scope a little bit farther by inventing an absurdist drama between piquant little beings known as Triangle Man, Universe Man, Person Man, and Particle Man. They do battle, follow the whims of their various subatomic and geometric natures, and ultimately leave hapless Person Man to his own devices: “Is he a dot? Or is he a speck? Does he feel totally worthless? / Who came up with person man? / Degraded man, person man.” And after we contemplate the cosmic plight of Person Man an accordion solo takes us out.
In “Whistling In The Dark” a sort of faux-authoritative voice, like a caricature of a teacher or a policeman in a ’50’s movie, solemnly informs us that “a woman came up to me and said / I’d like to poison your mind / With wrong ideas that appeal to you, though I am not unkind.” Interesting how matter-of-factly this hostile individual openly discloses their ill intentions and yet insists that they mean well. 30 years later this sounds like a way of decoding the implicit promises of demagogues and the pundits who facilitate them, which is a problem that couldn’t be timelier.
Later on, another man comes around and promises that he will change minds through force — this time by bonking people over the head with a rock — but also insists that he means well. There are lots of ways to manipulate people’s opinions, the song suggests, and no matter how coercive they are people will still refuse to take any responsibility for manipulating others. Considering that the characters end up being stuck together in a jail cell, it’s clear where all those power plays will get you in the end.
When the narrator of this song responds to this dilemma, it’s with a kind of Zen epigram:
There’s only one thing that I know how to do well
And I’ve often been told that there’s only one thing that you know how to do well
And that’s be you
Be what you’re like
Be like yourself.
And that’s all fine and dandy; I guess it’s undeniable that no one can help being like themselves. Or can they? Then he asserts that the only thing he likes is “whistling in the dark.” What could this ambiguous statement really mean? Maybe it’s that in order to stay sane one must carry on with life’s simple joys and leave the bloviating to others. Or is it better to be willfully oblivious to the madness all around you? You make the call. The song rides out on that ambiguous chorus, growing increasingly demented, with the words “whistling” and “dark” ping-ponging back and forth like a Sesame Street episode gone haywire and a marching fanfare of horns eventually drowns out the madness. Being like yourself isn’t as easy as it sounds.
“Your Racist Friend” is one of the most literal-minded songs on the record and describes a situation not uncommon these days. “This is where the party ends / I can’t stand here listening to you and your racist friend.” It describes that feeling when someone you know or, even worse, someone you just met at a party or somewhere starts to mouth off about the usual garbage about immigrants and minorities: “My head can’t tolerate this bobbing and pretending / Can’t stand here listening to this bullethead and the madness that he’s saying.” It’s a moral dilemma that stays relevant as long as political traction can be gained by stoking xenophobia.
The song is upfront about the disgust at this kind of creepy discourse but doesn’t offer a dogmatic or self-righteous solution to the problem. The approach is unlike the song “Racist Friend” by the English ska group The Specials which insists that one must end such a friendship immediately. TMBG’s song leaves the response open to the individual, but accurately warns that making excuses for crass comments won’t do the trick: “can’t shake the devil’s hand and say you’re only kidding.” That particular defense mechanism does get trotted out a lot lately, come to think of it, perhaps suggesting that we haven’t gone that far in thirty years.
“Hearing Aid” and “Someone Keeps Moving My Chair” describe a couple of neurotic specimens of modern malaise who are so tightly wound that they can’t handle even slight disruptions in their environment and want more fuel their alienation: “more coffee for me, Boss / ‘Cause I’m not as messed up as I want to be.” The succinct “Minimum Wage” gives the title phrase a raucous shout followed by a whipcrack effect. Anybody who’s busted their butt to make peanuts will require no further explanation. One of my personal favorites is “We Want a Rock” which pokes fun of materialism and keeping up with the Joneses by imagining the dumbest possible consumer object: “everybody wants a rock to wind a piece of string around.” And that’s not trendy enough to satisfy the capricious masses, either. It escalates to the point when everybody wants prosthetic foreheads on their real heads. And then, of course, the prosthetic forehead crowd clashes with the rock-string set, and let’s just say it doesn’t end well.
As anyone who tries to be creative eventually discovers, the world is not always interested in your intense emotions. Oscar Wilde was surely right when he said that “all bad poetry is sincere” — which is not to say that all sincerity is automatically bad poetry. Maybe we should take this witticism to mean that artists actually shouldn’t expect points for advertising to the world how much they really mean it, trying in vain to be Prince Hamlet when they aren’t meant to be. Just because you’re gnashing your teeth and shaking your fists over the fact that no one is listening doesn’t in itself make you a genius. Maybe you’re just a drama queen.
Some artists (and this can apply to their audiences too) often mistake conspicuous displays of darkness, grand gestures of sturm und drang, for profundity. This is a melodramatic mistake, and often the mark of the novice. You don’t have to act deep to be deep. It’s far too easy for conspicuously tortured souls to forget or ignore the much more complex and invigorating idea that authentic creativity can be playful, using bright colors and whimsical humor to make its points. Literate and penetrating statements about the various absurdities of the human condition can be made just as well with silly voices, quirky harmonies, odd instrumentation, surreal imagery, and the occasional accordion solo for good measure. •