• Old 'Stache

Why Is The World In Love Again: 21 Years After the Flood

written by: on July 28, 2011

After the synthetic and rubbery sounds of the 1980s—full of hair, shoulder pads and cocaine—there was probably little idea of where humanity was heading next. Then one of its children, a band named They Might Be Giants, came out with Flood, bearing tales of triangle men, Constantinople and Sapphire Bullets of Pure Love. It didn’t have any answers but it sure seemed jubilant.

The brainchild of John Flansburgh and John Linnell—whatever Flood was, made its presence known. Flood was the band’s third album and their first release on a major label. Though it was by shades triumphant and twangy, familiar and unheard of, at times swelling with the grandiosity of a superhero theme song, if any work could have pent up all of Generation X’s anxiety, erudition and playfulness—Flood did.

The album manages to squeeze an incredible 19 songs within 45 minutes without ever sounding underdeveloped. These are songs that, in the sureness of their performance, feel like they’ve always been there. Much of the criticism leveled at Lincoln and their self-titled debut was that TMBG, while impressive in their lyrical gushing, really never stirred any feeling, their scatterbrained brand of op was just too weird to be palatable. Whether they listened or not, TMBG was perhaps the steady-handed charm for most Brooklynites.

Beginning with the epigraph-like chorale, “Why is the world in love again/Why are we marching hand-in-hand/Why are the ocean levels rising up,” the album launches headfirst into “Birdhouse In Your Soul,” where Linnell announces, as if to the listener, “Say, I’m the only bee in your bonnet.” Steadily hammering drums run the song under an air of trilling organs, with Linnell’s maddening wordplay leading the way.

At the time, critics could make neither heads nor tails of it. Robert Christgau could only manage, “Tunes, aarghh, tunes—please not more tunes,” while Rolling Stone bestowed a right honorable two-star rating.

Tightly constructed with sparkling production—how else could they go about bashing the work if not for its strange subject material and erratic layout. Calls of “too clever,” “too catchy” and “too glib” inevitably stacked up—and not without justification.

There is perhaps no work in music that brought together so many disparate elements so effortlessly on this opus, including accordions, muted trumpets and clavichords combined with traditional rock instrumentation. Flood is a veritable carnival, teeming with color and cacophony that could not have been wrangled in without the superb musicianship of Flansburgh and Linnell. The winding lyricism can wax eccentric but manages to deliver a gut-punch when least expected.

Linnell’s voice is sharp and nasally, his tone almost pedantic. It is of course nerdy but never inaccessible. Both of The Johns trade vocal duties throughout the album. They Might Be Giants is blessed with a superb ear for melody, with an ability to take even the most bizarre, abstract concept and put it into sing-songiness. Take the iconic struggle of “Particle Man,” a deadpan conflict between a particle, a triangle, the universe and “person man,” “Hit on the head with a frying pan.” In a moment of postmodern self-comment, Flansburgh concedes, “Who came up with person man?”

The sentiments vary from the bored, to the existential. In the case of “Dead,” it’s both: “Now it’s over, I’m dead and haven’t done anything that I want/Or I’m still alive and there’s nothing I want to do.” At times, the album seems to linger on the topical—“Racist Friend,” “Minimum Wage,” and a number called “Women and Men,” about a dizzyingly booming population. Lest it get too weighty, equal protest is given to “Someone Keeps Moving My Chair,” and daily matters like finding a rock to tie a string around.

This was art rock without pretension, Brooklyn before Brooklyn was hip, a dubious band name before dubious band names were cool. (Flood was the first album that TMBG tackled the absurdity of their own name, “And what are we gonna do unless they’re not?”)

That the songs stick with you after one listen is testament to its power, melodies swill in your head long after the first bout. That two men so accurately captured the spirit—the chaos, ennui and uncertainty—of the decade to come before it happened, without purposely trying, is a wonder. The album remains their most popular to date—so much that, to avoid the label “They Might Be Giants,” The Johns will perform it in its entirety under the moniker Sapphire Bullets, and typically introduced as “the only TMBG cover band that matters.”

Any work of art, no matter its merits, can hold up through the ages if only in the warm glow of memory. Flood isn’t just a time capsule but a majorly influential album. Artists from Black Francis to Barenaked Ladies to TV On The Radio have cited it as a mantelpiece. If the Giants were excessively campy in a way that came off as a mockery or an inside joke, Flood was an invitation into their maniacal and lovable cult.

They Might Be Giants – Flood Tracklist:

  1. “Birdhouse in Your Soul”
  2. “Lucky Ball & Chain”
  3. “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)”
  4. “Dead”
  5. “Your Racist Friend”
  6. “Particle Man”
  7. “Twisting”
  8. “We Want a Rock”
  9. “Someone Keeps Moving My Chair”
  10. “Hearing Aid”
  11. “Minimum Wage”
  12. “Letterbox”
  13. “Whistling in the Dark”
  14. “Hot Cha”
  15. “Women & Men”
  16. “Sapphire Bullets of Pure Love”
  17. “They Might Be Giants”
  18. “Road Movie to Berlin”