Why is the world in love again? They Might Be Giants: Flood

Flood is the third record from They Might Be Giants and one of just a handful of records which I listen to over and over again. It never fails to lift my mood and bring a smile to my face, to make me think for a minute, or to give me a wonderful image or a poignant metaphor. In these dark times, when so many of us are upset at the state of the world or even just at our particular moment in life, I recommend getting in your car, putting this record on, and taking a drive. If you’re not feeling refreshed after that, there is no hope for you.

The album opens with a “Theme” song, sung by a chorus and composed in grand style, in which we are posed the question, “why is the world in love again?” and given the answer “it’s the brand new record, for 1990, They Might Be Giants’, Flood.” 26 years have passed since that song was written and it’s still relevant. If you want to fall in love with the world again, listen to Flood by They Might Be Giants. It works for me every time.

The album moves swiftly from the opening chorus into the hit single, Birdhouse in Your Soul. Birdhouse is a narrative poem written from the perspective of a nightlight. And what’s truly incredible is that the lyrics were written after the melody and shoehorned in. Incredible because there is a beautiful message of guardianship in Birdhouse:

There’s a picture opposite me
Of my primitive ancestry
Which stood on rocky shores and kept the beaches shipwreck free
Though I respect that a lot
I’d be fired if that were my job
After killing Jason off and countless screaming Argonauts
Bluebird of friendliness
Like guardian angels its always near

Blue canary in the outlet by the light switch
Who watches over you
Make a little birdhouse in your soul
Not to put too fine a point on it
Say I’m the only bee in your bonnet
Make a little birdhouse in your soul

(And while you’re at it
Keep the nightlight on inside the
Birdhouse in your soul)

I’ll admit that I often find myself imagining a birdhouse in my soul, my empty vessel, surrounding a birdhouse, black and white lines, and a glowing orange light beaming out. It’s there to be my warmth and light against the bleakness of the world.

Track three, “Lucky Ball and Chain”, is a country song and already in the first three tracks we have had a choral arraingement, a sea shanty, and a country song. They Might Be Giants are beyond eclcectic, they are the musical equivalent of ADHD on too much coffee. This might be a bit difficult for some folks but I suspect it’s a key reason why the album has remained fresh: so many albums these days are 10 tracks which all sound the same. You don’t have that problem on Flood, virtually every song is an exploration of a different style.

“Lucky Ball and Chain” introduces us to an unreliable narrator who lost the love of his life but keeps contradicting himself in asides. My daughter loves the imagery in this song and has drawn pictures of the bride running away from the groom with a ball and chain on her leg and throwing away a baby doll as in this lyric,

She threw away her baby-doll
I held on to my pride
But I was young and foolish then
I feel old and foolish now

She never called me baby-doll
I never had much pride
But now I rock a barstool
And I drink for two
Just pondering this time-bomb in my mind

This song also contains the lyrics “I could shake my tiny fist and say I wasn’t wrong, but what’s the use in arguing, when you’re all alone.” “Shakes tiny fist”, which means to be impotently angry about something, was wildly popular in discussion threads on Fark.com in the early part of the millennium and a phrase I still use to this day.

It’s likely that you’ve heard the song “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)” which is the only cover song on the album. Istanbul is a wild song, musically, and a favorite sing along for kids. It’s done in the style of a 1930’s Baroque Pop song. It reminds me of a song we would hear on an early black and white cartoon.

Track five, “Dead”, introduces us to They Might Be Giants’ odd sense of humor. It is a song written from the perspective of a dead person who is reincarnated as a bad of groceries that has been accidentally taken off the shelf before the expiration date. This song has two of my favorite images on the whole album. The first is that “I’ll never see myself in the mirror with my eyes closed.” I see this as a person closing their eyes and yet their mirror image stares back at them with their eyes open. A sort of self reflection with our eyes closed, something I think too many of us do.

And the second line I love follows that first immediately “I never apologized for when I was eight and I made my younger brother have to be my personal slave.” I don’t know if this is a generational thing or not but when I was growing up this was common practice. Whenever we would bet each other, the currency would be “you have to be my slave for the day.” Poetically, the two lines don’t go together very well. They are intended to show that the dead person regrets things they did and didn’t do in life but it seems a bit jumbled together.

Track six is “Your Racist Friend”. It’s a straightforward rebuke of people who allow racists to speak their vile hatred around them. It tells the story of some people at a party. The host apparently has a racist friend, who got drunk and made his awful opinion heard. The narrator simply leaves the party saying “I can’t stand here listening to you, you and your racist friend.” I think this is a great metaphor for the Republican Party:

It was the loveliest party that I’ve ever attended
If anything was broken I’m sure it could be mended
My head can’t tolerate this bobbing and pretending
Listen to some bullet-head and the madness that he’s saying

This is where the party ends
I just sit here wondering how you
Can stand by your racist friend
I know politics bore you
But I feel like a hypocrite talking to you
You and your racist friend

Jumping ahead a few tracks TMBG stretch out their metaphorical legs with the song “We Want a Rock”. This song features warring factions, one which wants a rock to wind a piece of string around and the other which wants prosthetic foreheads on their real heads. It’s a great metaphor for the pointlessness of religious or other meaningless disagreements. Whenever I read an argument online which features someone arguing vehemently for a meaningless position I always think,

Throw the crib door wide
Let the people crawl inside
Someone in this town
Is trying to burn the playhouse down
They want to stop the ones who want
A rock to wind a string around
But everybody wants a rock
To wind a piece of string around

These are just the highlight tracks. I need to save some for you to discover! But these are the tracks that for me show the range both musically and lyrically of this album. If you get a chance buy a copy. This is one of four CDs I have in my car at all times. The album is a a wonderful ride and the music stands up to scrutiny even after a quarter century. It might even have the healing power to make the world fall in love again. It certainly puts a smile on my face every time I listen to it.



  1. If music be the food of love, play on…

    (opening line of Twelfth Night)

    I always felt it was naively idealistic to hope that music could bring people together, a la I’d like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony, etc. But if we think about music less restrictively, perhaps as inclusive of poetry or literature (as the Greeks did), then what emerges is the power of story-telling. Narrative is important. It shapes beliefs.

  2. All the worlds a stage
    And all the men and women merely players
    They have their exits and their entrances
    I did have to check the detail for that one from As You Like It but it did remind me that all things pass we just have to make sure that those put in the target sights but recent events get helped.
    Also on the bizarre mind path if you saw ‘They might be giants’ on stage presumably you’d then know if they should then be called’Yes they are a pretty big bunch’ or ‘No a bunch of short arses actually’ – I don’t think they’d lay claim to being being giants of the pop industry but ‘Birdhouse’ is the only one I recognise and its does put a spring in my step so I am certainly glad they are part of my aural history.

  3. Nice post Tim, another fine piece of honesty and opening up to your readership. I’m not too familiar with TMBG but I appreciate your dissection of that album and what it represents to you.
    I believe that music is the most powerful and accessible medium for expressing ideologies and unification. I’m no scholar, but do we not have music in all cultures and religions and have we not seen the transformation of attitudes towards our very existence shaped by the sounds and lyrics of the best exponents of musicality?
    I believe also that the arrested integrity within the industry of pop music is testament to the power of the art form. Will we ever see another John Lennon or Bob Marley etc given the freedom and platform to reach the masses? (Albeit for a limited time only). I doubt it, just more old Prince stuff rehashed by Bruno Mars or buskers picked from the multitudes and given their 15mins. It’s just about the taking the money off the audience whilst dumbing them down to the lowest levels. There is still a great deal of music that has real relevance and potential positive influence but it doesn’t receive awards, praise or airplay. And as you’ve just proved, there is music that I haven’t got around to yet from the past that has great value.

  4. You left them with some good stuff to come. Whistling in the dark and women and men are two of my favorites on the whole cd (other than particle man and Istanbul but that’s as much Tiny Tunes nostalgia for introducing me to the CD as it is the content of those songs themselves)

  5. I have to he greatest hits album and love it. This review makes me want to seek out the individual albums now

  6. Flood is one of those great albums that everyone of a certain age knows and loves and usually doesn’t actually think about as a great album.

    I am, of course, of that certain age, so I fall victim to it as well. I popped it on myself recently, thinking of Your Racist Friend in reference to the election as well and ended up listening to the whole thing and well, yeah.

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