Monday, January 6, 2014

Flood by S. Alexander Reed and Philip Sandler

Hello TMBG friends!

Many of you have probably seen by now that a couple of fine fellows have written a book about our favorite band's Flood album for the 33 1/3 series.  If you aren't familiar with the series, each volume is about a different musical album. Each book is unique, written by a different author, and takes a slightly different approach to talking about its album. Some are historical narratives about the creation of an album. Some are analyses on the cultural significance of the particular album. Some are very personal stories about the impact of the album on the author. And, what I have always found to be most interesting, the books are a result of an open call for submissions from the publisher, so literally anyone can be chosen to write one if they have an interesting enough story to tell about their chosen album.

I'm not sure if it is true, but it has seemed like at least one book about a TMBG album has been proposed for the series every year, at least since I have been paying attention. But this is the first time one of those submissions has been selected for publication. And I have been looking forward to reading it since it was first announced. The authors were kind enough to have the publisher send me a copy for review when it was released in November, but my "real" job kept me too busy through December to have any time to read it until now.

I am sorry to report, but I was a bit disappointed in the book. It was written much more academically than I was expecting, with its central idea being to relate the concept of "flooding" to the album across several different themes. However, I found the flooding idea to be a bit forced, and found by the end that I could no longer remember what exactly their concept of flooding had been and thus why it was supposed to be relevant in themes like childhood, geek culture, technology, etc.

I think, upon reflection, that the book wasn't really written for fans like me. The band has spoken in interviews about the challenge of arranging a concert that satisfies both the "front row" like myself who want to be surprised and hear the rare and unusual tracks, while also playing all the hits for the people in the middle of the room who came to hear Birdhouse and Istanbul. And I think this book was written for the middle of the room. While it certainly assumed a familiarity with and appreciation for TMBG's music, much of the history presented, both of the band and the making of Flood, was information I learned from the documentary Gigantic years ago, and indeed, several of the narratives relayed are almost word for word from the interviews in that film. Despite the fact that the authors had an interview with the Johns for the book, I felt like I learned disappointingly little about the making of Flood that I didn't already know. This is, admittedly, something that might not be the case for more casual fans of the band reading the book. Not only have I seen the movie, I've read most of the interviews quoted in the book along with a hundred others, so I may actually be too well informed.

Much of the book is not focused on the history at all, but on exploring the themes of Flood and how the album fits into the larger world of geek culture. While much of this analysis was well written and well thought out, I couldn't help but feel they were missing the point. One of the things I love most about They Might Be Giants is that they defy classification. They do no not fit into any one genre or mold and it is possible to interpret their music in any of a hundred different ways to suit a hundred different listeners. And while I fully agree that there is a definite affinity between the band's music and geek culture, I don't feel the authors managed to satisfactorily explain exactly why that affinity exists and what it is about Flood in particular that is so appealing to people of a geeky sensibility. The closest they came, for me anyway, was in discussing the album as post-cool, shunning the accepted "popular" themes and embracing the outskirts.

Actually what struck me as most disappointing about the book, and this is apparently something unique to me as it is exactly the thing that one of the reviewers on Amazon said they liked about it, is that I never had that feeling while reading it of "yes, THIS is why I love this band." There was a brief moment of it, in the epilogue, while describing attending a TMBG concert and the camaraderie that one experiences with the rest of the audience over shared love of the music. But I think, maybe, that just proves that They Might Be Giants mean different things to different people. That it is very possible, and even likely, that another fan might sit down with this book and feel that it exactly captured their feelings on Flood and the band as a whole. And I'm pretty okay with that. I don't need to appreciate the same things about Flood as the authors do, and I don't expect to appreciate the same things as every other fan. In fact, I expect not to.

In short, while the book was not my cup of tea, and was not exactly what I was hoping for when I sat down with it, I wouldn't let that discourage other fans from picking it up. You might find that you identify with it more strongly than I, and it is certainly an interesting and well written analysis. And perhaps most importantly, it's existence demonstrates an acknowledgement that They Might Be Giants, and Flood in particular, hold an important cultural significance in the music world that is oh so rarely appreciated. And for that reason, I am extremely grateful that it exists.

You can pick up a copy from B&N here:

Or Amazon here:

1 comment:

  1. I did not like the book very much, though I suppose it could have been worse. It was clear that the authors sort of just wanted to talk about geek culture (for a third of the book??)...they barely bothered to relate it back to TMBG at all. And the "flooding" concept as they applied it to nerd interests and childhood was so could be applied the same way to almost any other topic that exists in the world with equal or greater efficacy. The parts that actually talked about John & John's experience growing up + in the music business starting out I enjoyed, as well as some of the analysis of the songs, but the overly academic way they wrote about the music and brought it back to "flooding" turned me off. Ah well.