Album: Flood, 1990
Justification: There’s no sight sadder than a They Might Be Giants fan trying to justify their love for the band. “They’re one of the wisest, most popmodern bands in the world!” they cry. “There’s a Dada element to their music, they deal in irony, they emerged from the experimental art scene of Brooklyn, dammit, they’re cool – honest, they’re cool!”
“They’re that band who did the ‘you’re not the boss of me’ song, right?” says everyone else.
And you’re both right, imaginary groups of people arguing over They Might Be Giants: yes, John Linnell and John Flansburgh are arch ironists; they are experimental pop geniuses; and yes they did that ‘Boss of Me’ song, and now mainly do music for children (really, really good music for children). In fact, if you grab one of the several TMBG compilations you swiftly realise that these guys are masters of the great pop song with a sly undercurrent of wit – as on this conveniently-provided example demonstrates. ‘Birdhouse in your Soul’ represents the high-water point for the band in many people’s opinions: the Flood album had become a college-dorm staple in the US, thanks to the cred of their two previous indie albums on Bar/None and the marketing muscle of their new major-label home Elektra – and, to be honest, the fact that it’s probably their most consistently accessible album.
The Johns don’t traditionally write together, although all songs are credited to them both, but they sing their own and have certain quirks that allow you to pick who’s responsible for what: if it’s rhythmically quirky and relies on Carrollian dream logic, it’s probably Linnell (‘Don’t Let’s Start’, ‘Ana Ng’, ‘Particle Man’); if it’s in a recognisable musical pastiche, however twisted, or has a narrative, it’s probably Flansburgh (‘Boss of Me’, ‘S-E-X-X-Y’, ‘Sleeping in the Flowers’).
Like so many of the early singles, this one came mainly from Linnell’s pen and sings from the perspective of a night light in a child’s bedroom, and is probably the only song a) told from this viewpoint, and b) that acknowledges that a blue canary night light, however incandescent, would make a poor substitute for a lighthouse (“Though I respect that a lot / I’d be fired if that were my job / After killing Jason off and countless screaming Argonauts”).
College rock faves and indie radio staples they may have been, but the mainstream crossover wasn’t to come for over a decade (and then only when they changed tack and started pursuing a far, far younger demographic). Elektra might have done everything right with Flood, but by the time the band finished their follow-up Apollo 18 the company had forgotten how and why they’d signed the duo, and after three albums of diminishing returns they let the band go after a farcical dispute over their contract. It ended with Elektra taking them up on their option, deciding they didn’t want them after all, and therefore being forced to pay out advances for those three albums in order to let the band go. Fun fact: TMBG’s lawyer at the time (and bassist around the John Henry period) was Tony Mamoine, former bassist with Pere Ubu latterly turned music attorney. See kids: mum’s right. Get that piece of paper.
This isn’t the last TMBG song that’s going to appear in here, let me assure you.