Monday, February 13, 2012

Why is the world in love again?


Chances are very good that the first time you ever heard They Might Be Giants, it was something off this album. Chances are even better that if you own only one They Might Be Giants album, it's this one. There's even a good chance if you're roughly my age that your first exposure to They Might Be Giants may even have been on Tiny Toons Adventures, where two songs off Flood were featured as music videos - "Particle Man" and "Istanbul (Not Constantinople)."

If you need any more proof that the 1990s was a strange decade, reflect for a minute on the fact for a brief moment during the administration of George H. W. Bush the full weight of Warner Brothers' corporate promotion machine was bent towards ensuring that They Might Be Giants sold a lot of records. They took six minutes of airtime on a nationally broadcast children's cartoon and gave it over to free advertisement for a weird New York post-New Wave synth-rock duo.

I have conflicted emotions about Flood. I was one of those folks for whom Flood was their first exposure to the Johns. Although it didn't take me long to track down the rest of their extant discography (which was, at the time, all of three albums - although Miscellaneous T was actually released a few months after Flood, if I recall correctly), this holds pride of place as their first, for me and many others. The problem is that although it isn't hard in hindsight to recognize why exactly this album hit the way it did, it's also easy to discern that one of the reasons it did so was by sawing off many of the sharp edges that had defined their early albums. It is worth noting that Flood has significantly fewer tracks about divorce and despair than Lincoln.

In exchange for the anguish of their second album, we have instead perhaps the apogee of their pop songwriting skills. Excepting "Istanbul" (a cover of the Four Lads' song of the same name), the album presents a series of endlessly catchy pop ditties written in a variety of genres and presenting an incredible stylistic range. Their eclecticism and ability to sell even the most bizarre premise through enthusiasm and panache. Listen to "Letterbox," "Sapphire Bullets of Pure Love," "Twisting" - you'd be hard pressed to find three more different songs, and yet each of them work exceptionally well. I would argue that the variety of sounds on Flood make it at times a difficult listen - it's so disparate, so diverse, that it can be exhausting.

And it doesn't all work. "Your Racist Friend" is still a cringeworthy attempt at - what? sincerity? an "issues" song? Not even a salsa breakdown can save it. I've never been able to get a handle on album closer "Road Movie to Berlin," either. They usually have really strong instincts when it comes to the final song on their albums - "Rhythm Section Want Ad," "Kiss Me, Son of God," Spacesuit," "End of the Tour" - but "Road Movie to Berlin" has always felt flat to me, like a sketch that was never fully developed.

The core of the album, to me, has always been what I've informally regarded as the "working" trilogy - "Someone Keeps Moving My Chair," Hearing Aid," and "Minimum Wage" - three songs dedicated to how much it sucks to work in an office. The personal anxiety of the first two albums has mutated into a more generalized anxiety about wage slavery and the small daily humiliations of working in forced intimacy with people you don't like and with whom you exist in a state of mutual contempt:
More coffee for me boss /
'Cause I'm not as messed up as I want to be /
I've turned off my hearing aid /
Don't say the electric chair's not good enough /
For king-lazy-bones like myself.
One of the band's strong suits has always been their ability to immortalize the most petty and seemingly inconsequential moments of a person's life in musical amber. They have a great deal of empathy for losers and perpetual runners-up - and there is no doubt that their attention to the overlooked ignominies of everyday existence helped cement their relationship to a fanbase seemingly self-defined by their obsession with embarrassment and an inaptitude for daily life.

When you break the album down on a song-by-song basis, it remains enduringly, almost preternaturally strong. It's much easier to pinpoint the tracks that don't work or somehow fall short than to list the songs that remain stone classics - "Whistling in the Dark," "Women & Men," "We Want A Rock." If you've ever heard the album you've probably got one or all of those songs in your head right now. If the album seems slightly patchy in hindsight, a tad scattershot, less focused and more manic than necessary, it's entirely possible that these defects may be entirely of my own imagining.

I suppose my hesitancy regarding the album comes more from familiarity than anything else. I've heard Flood so many times that I could almost certainly recite the entire thing by heart. It's not an album I pull down for pleasure much anymore. Maybe there are only so many times you can hear an album before you can't hear it anymore. Maybe I need to wait a few years before I can ever listen to it again.

Next: Mission to Mars

(out of five)

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