It makes sense that They Might Be Giants would name an album after a NASA mission. After all, the band already had a fan base whose record collections were likely to include the 2001: A Space Odyssey soundtrack. I remember first listening to the record on the way to a Rennaisance Festival, perhaps the definitive context in which to consume They Might Be Giants’ geek-rock.
The folky alt-rockers had cultivated a following among theater kids and a/v club members in the late 1980s, decades before nerd culture went mainstream. Led by multi-instrumentalist singer-songwriters John Flansburgh and John Linnell, They Might Be Giants combined kitsch and novelty with power pop and art-rock. They were twitchy like the Talking Heads, omnivorous like Sparks, humorous like the B-52s, and enamored with the accordion like “Weird Al” Yankovic. They sounded like a cardigan purchased at the Salvation Army, like an earnest poem scrawled into your geometry notebook, like a beloved cartoon you still watch even though you’re possibly too old for such things.
A couple of years before Apollo 18, they’d scored a minor modern-rock hit—and mixtape go-to—with “Birdhouse in Your Soul”, a confection of stream-of-conscious lyrics, pop melodies, and twee aesthetics. The lyrics didn’t make much sense if you thought about them too hard, but the nightlights, mythological figures, and titular birdhouses felt romantic and magical. Of course, you could dance to it on Mondays, too, while watching the music video on your VHS recording of last night’s 120 Minutes.
But the duo truly reached for the stars a couple of years after “Birdhouse”, on their fourth LP, 1992’s Apollo 18. It’s hard to overstate the record’s sheer ambition. Flansburgh and Linnell kept the drum machines and Casio keyboards but added more live musicians. Consequently, the tracks careen wildly from thrash metal, trippy instrumental, and Bo Didley pastiche to Schoolhouse Rock-esque children’s songs. It’s a concept record about being smart, quirky, and optimistic. It assumes that the listener is familiar with comic books, B movies, game shows, hypnotism, new wave music, Pavlov’s dog, and the history of space exploration.
Apollo 18 dropped just months after alt-rock juggernauts Nevermind, Ten, and Bloodsugarsexmagic, at a moment when outsider aesthetics were all over the Top Forty. Although They Might Be Giants weren’t a grunge act, the Johns shared Kurt Cobain’s thrift store style. Also, the fact that Apollo 18 took its name from a failed NASA mission was wholly consistent with the irony-laden zeitgeist. Plus, They Might Be Giants were still riding a wave of goodwill and positive regard over “Birdhouse”, which had anchored its last record. So, you’d think Apollo 18 would have been a smash.
But it wasn’t. The lead single “The Statue Got Me High” got modern-rock airplay, but for the most part, the record ended up lost in the alternative music explosion of 1992. Fans interested in quirkiness had a huge menu in front of them, and they seemed more interested in the minor-key dirges that Pearl Jam and Smashing Pumpkins were offering. The Johns seemed less detached and more engaged than the guys in Pavement or Nirvana. Furthermore, some longtime fans of the band resented the addition of a full band backing up Flansburgh and Linnell, preferring the old days when They Might Be Giants performed as a duo.
As a result, Apollo 18 appears inessential as both a document of 1992 alt-rock and an entry in They Might Be Giants’ discography. That appearance is false, however, because it’s an essential album.
First off, Apollo 18 is a surprisingly rocking affair. The addition of a full backing band really was like Dylan going electric: some purists felt betrayed, but the shift opened up new creative prospects, including the possibility of cranking the amps and shredding. The record opens with the sixty-eight-second thrasher “Dig My Grave”, which sounds like Bedtime for Democracy-era Dead Kennedys. Then, “I Palindrome I” and “The Statue Got Me High” are uptempo rockers, whereas “Hypnotist of Ladies” is a homage to Bo Diddley. Finally, the trippy instrumental that closes the record, “Space Suit”, sounds like something from Quadrophenia. Yes, there are violins and synths and accordions and banjos on Apollo 18, but the electric guitar is usually in the foreground. Clearly, it’s a rock record.
Beyond that, Apollo 18 is funny without ever falling into a novelty-act ravine. The main pair tiptoe up to that edge and peer over, and then they look up and give us a wink. They know what they’re doing, and they’re in control of tone. For instance, much of “Dinner Bell” is silly—particularly when the lyrics are just long lists of foods that the narrator doesn’t want to eat. Yet, it’s also a cogent retelling of the story of Pavlov’s dog. Likewise, “Spider” sounds like fluffy filler because it’s a faux superhero theme song, but I’ll be damned if it isn’t a really, really catchy and loving faux superhero theme song. How does the duo avoid falling over that edge, then? Simple: juxtaposition. For every moment of whimsy, there’s something dark and grisly. For every moment of surrealism, there’s an earnest moment. The punch lines punch harder because They Might Be Giants also flirt with sincerity and darkness.
Let’s not forget that the record shows a willingness to experiment. In addition to the aggressive genre-hopping, the tracks also appeal to a wide array of affective states. Specifically, the first verse of “I Palindrome I” describes a kid looking forward to his mother’s death so he can collect the inheritance. It’s that art-rock move, a move at least as old as “Psycho Killer”, where the band engages in performance art by drawing our attention to how we’re reacting to something transgressive or shocking. Another experimental flourish is the inclusion of the “Fingertips” suite, which comprises twenty-one short song-fragments toward the end of the record, with the shortest one being just four seconds long. Most of the fragments sound like either pastiches of commercial jingles or the beginnings of unfinished pop or children’s songs. Think of The Who Sell Out mixed with side two of Bowie’s Low.
The liner notes suggest that these soundbites are meant to enhance the experience of listening to the CD version of Apollo 18 on shuffle mode. They’re intended to create the random, vaguely post-structural experience of hearing a whimsical fragment followed by a “normal” four-minute song (and vice versa). I can hazily recall a Halloween party in ’92 at which the host spun Apollo 18 on shuffle mode so we could all experience this postmodern thrill. Somehow, this experimentation and artifice meshed with the pop culture moment: Bono prank-calling the White House from the Zoo TV stage, the Seinfeld storyline in which Jerry and George pitch a sitcom about nothing to NBC executives, etc. Apollo 18’s as avant-garde as any alt-rock record of ’92, even if—at times—the experiments seem hokey. Somehow, it also represents the era’s self-awareness and obsession with all things “meta”.
Perhaps most importantly, the album is a glimpse into how the band’s nerdy aesthetic and mass culture’s relationship to nerdiness were in flux. From the accordion solos and informative children’s songs about the natural sciences (“Mammal”) and social-behavioral sciences (“Dinner Bell”) to the lyrical admissions of social awkwardness (“If I Wasn’t Shy”), They Might Be Giants pledge their allegiance to nerd culture. This wasn’t a wholly new aesthetic for the duo, but they appeared even more committed to it here. Whereas their previous record, 1990’s Flood, had moments where the band nerded out—“Instanbul (Not Constantinople)” comes to mind—Apollo 18 is a sustained ode to being a social outcast. It’s an attempt to wrestle with an array of nerd signifiers and a mission (no pun intended) statement asserting that being uncool can be cool.
After Apollo 18, the band continued embracing these signifiers, recording theme songs for quirky cartoons and a live-action sitcom about the kind of smart yet awkward kid who might love They Might Be Giants (Malcolm in the Middle). They even put out children’s records. If the Johns embraced those signifiers, so too did mass culture, as evidenced by the dominance of superhero movies and another sitcom fully dedicated to nerd aesthetics: The Big Bang Theory. That show’s theme song was even done by Barenaked Ladies, the ying to They Might Be Giants’ yang.
Apollo 18 might seem like an also-ran from 1992, dwarfed by the success of other arty alt-rock records of the era. However, its genre diversity, smart lyrics, and overarching humor warrant giving the album another listen. Additionally, it’s a harbinger of the ascendance of nerd culture in the subsequent decade or two.
Thirty years later, They Might Be Giants still make ambition and reaching for the stars look cool.