To celebrate the 30th anniversary of their baffling and beloved 1990 album Flood, They Might Be Giants, the Brooklyn-via-Massachusetts alt-rock duo of John Flansburgh (glasses; droll; guitar, primarily) and John Linnell (no glasses; even droller; accordion, frequently) are learning to play the deep cut “Sapphire Bullets of Pure Love” backward. Meaning physically, message-from-Satan backward. Linnell describes this undertaking, drolly, as a “heroic effort,” and regards the result thus far as “surprisingly musical.”
He’s joking. He’s half-joking. Because with this band, with this lifestyle, the goofier the idea, the purer the intent and the harder the work. “John and I have spent hours and hours at this point trying to memorize the backwards lyrics of ‘Sapphire Bullets of Pure Love,’” Linnell explains, chatting on the phone in mid-January as the duo, long augmented live by a full band, prepared to embark on a monthslong Flood-centric national tour. “What we’ve been able to do at rehearsal is sing it holding up lyric sheets in front of our faces, but we still haven’t mastered the off-book version.”
The original, linear-time “Sapphire Bullets of Pure Love” is a 96-second oddity amid the 18 other confounding and delightful oddities that grace Flood, with a pleasantly disorienting keyboard loop and some modest pots-and-pans percussion and (indeed!) a little gentle accordion. The plaintive lyrics, sung jointly by both Johns, balance whimsy and menace in time-honored They Might Be Giants fashion: “John, I’ve been bad, and they’re comin’ after me / Done someone wrong and I fear that it was me.” It’s a bright little jingle; it’s a resigned death knell. Just because you have no idea what it means (you never do, not exactly) doesn’t mean it ain’t profound.
I told my fellow TMBG-obsessive brother-in-law about this playing-it-backward business and he immediately sent me a time-flipped MP3 of the song with the file name “Evol Erup Fo Stellub Erihppas”; the keyboard loop sounds pretty much the same, and the rest sounds like a drunk Tame Impala singing in German. Godspeed, then, to whichever lucky crowd in whatever random city first gets to hear this splendid monstrosity live. Will that crowd get any advance warning? “Good question,” Linnell says. “I don’t know. Which would be better? Would it be better to tell people in advance, so they’re ready for that? Maybe we could get people to video it, and then we’ll leave it to them to reverse the video and watch it backwards. See what kind of job we did. You know?”
God bless They Might Be Giants, then, for bringing a startling sense of innovation to even their nostalgia plays. If you’re going to make these fellas look backward, then by jove, they’re going to sing backward, too.
Flansburgh and Linnell first met at Brooks Middle School in Lincoln, Massachusetts, and first rose to prominence in NYC via a mid-’80s East Village performance-art scene Flansburgh describes, in a separate phone call, as “a very heady mix of just stuff that was so beyond fucked up.” They often shared bills with Steve Buscemi’s experimental comedy duo; “I saw a trailer for a movie,” Linnell recalls of an incident many years later, “And I was like, ‘Oh, hey, there’s that guy.’”
TMBG’s self-titled 1986 debut, all minimal drum-machine grandeur and avant-garde juvenilia, has a jaunty polka called “I Hope That I Get Old Before I Die”; the crunchier Lincoln, from 1988, has a quite melancholy jangle-pop breakup song called “They’ll Need a Crane.” College rock was a thing back then, scruffy and erudite and sometimes even anthemic in a self-deprecating sort of way; the Johns’ more specific kindred spirits, from my perspective at least, ranged from “Weird Al” Yankovic (legitimate humor + accordion) to Pee-wee Herman (delightful whimsy so profound it scans as menace) to the Monty Python diaspora (every new bite-sized art-pop opus, and each of the band’s albums packs in 20 or so, was a bracing fish-slap to the face).
But no artist before or since comes close to capturing this band’s ferociously sincere irreverence. (Or staying power: They Might Be Giants still tour relentlessly and have released several dozen albums, including three in 2018 alone.) Released in January 1990, Flood was the band’s major-label debut for Elektra, back when those words meant something; “The major label,” Linnell marvels, “had this amazing power to inflict it on the whole world.”
Which meant modest radio play and even some dead-of-night MTV action. The end result is that when I was 12 or 13, adrift spiritually in pre-alternative-rock Midwestern dolor, my Cool Uncle Nick played Flood’s “Particle Man” for me—the catchy handclaps, the oompah bounce, the righteous accordion riff, the abstrusely childlike science-vs.-theology narrative pitting Particle Man against Triangle Man against Universe Man against Person Man—and without hyperbole changed my life.
“It’s nice that you have a Cool Uncle,” Linnell says. “Not everybody gets one of those.” He likely hears this kind of thing a lot. The Flood entry in the pocket-sized-book-on-one-album 33⅓ series, written by two PhD’s named Elizabeth Sandifer and S. Alexander Reed, is built around the thesis that They Might Be Giants make “ideal music for the middle school ‘gifted’ set, a group of variously outcast kids who, nevertheless, don’t actually want to piss off their parents.” Flood’s three most enduring songs (all live staples to this day) are “Particle Man”; a geographically precise klezmer cover of the ’50s novelty song “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)”; and the not-at-all-self-deprecatingly anthemic “Birdhouse in Your Soul,” a rapturous synth-pop jam sung from the perspective of a friendly nightlight.
“Particle Man” and “Istanbul (Not Constantinople),” in fact, showed up in a bizarre 1991 episode of the after-school animated staple Tiny Toon Adventures; the slapstick violence (Universe Man pounds the bejesus out of Particle Man) was not exactly on brand, though the literally-too-young-to-grow-up chaos of it all was on brand in the extreme.
Overall, Flood was bizarre and playful enough to scan as hopelessly uncool at the time but plenty soulful enough to qualify, in retrospect, as the coolest thing imaginable. “It is at once a childish look at adulthood,” Sandifer and Reed write, “and a mature look at childhood experience.” Critics didn’t always get it; the band’s email newsletter recently reprinted, under the extra-droll headline ROLLING STONE RAVES!, the magazine’s two-star review of Flood, which begins with the line “Now that the freshness of their Dorks on Parade shtick has worn off …” But the kids were hooked, and stayed hooked long after they’d ceased to be kids.
Flansburgh, too, gets the whole you-changed-my-life-in-junior-high routine a lot. “This is a really strange thing, but Flood was wildly popular with the Columbia House music club,” he tells me, referring to the old eight-CDs-for-a-penny mail-order racket abused by many a ’90s teenager. “Which is a mistake that only people in the eighth grade make, right?”
As it happens, I have retained for 30-odd years the Columbia House catalog description of Flood, which consisted of two words: “quirky brilliance.” Which is another thing these guys get a lot. “I mean, I would settle for just ‘brilliance,’” Flansburgh jokes, but part of this record’s legacy is the way it both relentlessly attracted and valiantly redeemed words like nerdy or dorky or geeky. “I think people want to create drama, and the idea that we’re, like, shaking our fists to the heavens every time somebody calls us quirky might be sort of humorous,” he says. “The truth is, we’ve always approached this as, we want to do something that’s extreme, and we want to do something that is a very authentic representation of our sensibility. We are perfectly aware that we’re mixing humor and music together, and that’s a balancing act.”
More specifically (and dangerously), it’s “cultural nitroglycerin,” as he puts it. “If you’re trying to write a song that’s going to hold up to repeated listening and not just be super fucking annoying, you’ve got a much more complicated thing that you’ve got to do, and that’s, I think, where we’re at,” Flansburgh continues. “We want to do stuff that’s surprising, but we also want to make songs that are persuasive and catchy and interesting and pull people in. I mean, you can surprise people just by pulling out a gun.”
Flood’s persuasive triumphs include the piano ballad “Dead” (in which the narrator is reincarnated as a bag of groceries), or the way less melancholy surf-rock breakup song “Twisting,” or the outré dub fantasia “Hearing Aid” (featuring a scabrous guitar solo from No Wave deity Arto Lindsay). Or the ecstatic trumpet solo in the midst of an uncharacteristically straightforward bop called “Your Racist Friend.” Or the genial barnyard lope “We Want a Rock,” which revolves around the chorus, “Everybody wants a rock / To wind their piece of string around.” (It’s a parable about conformism, maybe: “Its core non-judgmentality,” the Flood book argues, “helps defang the concept of exclusivity from which coolness draws its power, producing an ode to the joys of the uncool that makes no actual effort to redeem or defend the uncool.”) If that’s too wordy, try the surrealist lounge-rock blip “Minimum Wage,” which consists of three words, if heeeya! even counts as a word.
Back in 2010, when the band played some 20th-anniversary shows that made me feel plenty old enough, the Flood track that most resonated with me was the marching-band epic “Whistling in the Dark,” one of the album’s longest tunes (at 3:25) and most direct appeals to the outcast 12-year-old still lurking in us all:
There’s only one thing that I know how to do well
And I’ve often been told that you only can do what you know how to do well
And that’s be you
Be what your like
Be like yourself
Et cetera. Pretty straightforward; awfully inspirational. Except Linnell sings the song in a morosely silly swing-low-sweet-chariot voice, and the narrator happens to mention that he’s in jail. Do not look to They Might Be Giants for uncomplicated advice or autobiography. “I hope that it’s obvious that we’re being sort of arch,” Linnell says. “Or, we’re speaking in the voice of a fictitious character. Maybe there’s an unreliable narrator. When somebody says in a song, ‘People should get beat up for stating their beliefs’”—that’s from a Lincoln song called “Shoehorn With Teeth”—“I hope people get that we, the songwriters, don’t feel that way.”
How the songwriters really feel is a mystery the Johns have preserved for 30-plus years. “I don’t think we’re preoccupied with communicating to an audience the way a lot of more successful songwriters are,” Flansburgh says. “Have you noticed that there’s this phrase ‘public-facing’ that’s come into use? I feel like there are bands and songwriters that are very public-facing, and there are bands that are kind of private-facing. I feel like we are a profoundly private-facing band.”
Profoundly forward-looking, too: They Might Be Giants thrived in the alt-rock ’90s but also, crucially, survived them, pivoting to children’s albums for a brief stretch of the 2000s and hardly slowing down since. (I Like Fun, the band’s most prominent of three 2018 records, has the casual vivacity of goody-goody troublemakers one-fifth the band’s age.) On the Flood tour that will rumble on into May, the sets will last more than two hours, which means Flood itself will take up far less than half the show. Flansburgh is still scarred by an old Inside Amy Schumer sketch about a screaming romantic breakup wherein Schumer screams, “I hope that the next time you go to a concert, the band doesn’t play the song you want to hear, and instead, they just play songs off their new album.” But this enterprise feels like the exact right amount of nostalgia to have, a stridently present-tense celebration of the past.
That’s it’s own sort of cultural nitroglycerin, of course. “I mean, we are just going to keep getting older,” Flansburgh jokes, or half-jokes. “It’s so strange. Because we spend so little time dwelling on this stuff and how it affects people, we have people come to shows who were completely raised on our music, and they’re adults. They’re full-grown adults. For them to come to our show, it’s not like seeing a contemporary band. It’s just them checking in with who they are. Which is wild.” Even the life of a riotously successful rock band can only be lived forward. That band’s songs, though, with a little practice, are another matter.