Apollo 18 is the album that cemented They Might Be Giants as an act that would endure rather than burn briefly. Sure, the hit single “Birdhouse in Your Soul” had dragged its parent album, Flood into the charts in its wake, but TMBG already felt the need to play around with their sound, resulting in Apollo 18 being a slightly less accessible release than it’s predecessor.
Perhaps the key to enjoying Apollo 18 is to realise it wasn’t intended to have a set running order, instead it was an album that was written to take advantage of the shuffle setting on your CD player, with the four and a half minute “Fingertips” being made up of slivers of song intended to disperse themselves between all the other songs on the album, thus giving Apollo 18 a different sequence and dynamic each time it was played. It’s a shame that later reissues would weld all those song fragments into one solid track, therefore losing the intended effect. Of course, this approach never worked on vinyl anyway, but it was a bit of fun for those it did work for and is the sort of playful conceit that demonstrated TMBG’s attention to detail and willingness to go that extra mile to offer their fans something that no other act did.
Apollo 18 has a reputation as an album that lacked an obvious hit single, but listening back now, it’s difficult to understand exactly why that is. “| Palindrome |”, “The Statue Got Me High” and “The Guitar (The Lion Sleeps Tonight)” are all wonderfully quirky, yet utterly accessible tunes in their own right, and the mind boggles as to why the latter didn’t match “Birdhouse in Your Soul” in terms of radio play. They aren’t the only memorable tunes either, as songs like “She’s Actual Size”, “Dinner Bell”, “Mammal” and “Narrow Your Eyes” slowly take up residence in the back of your mind, for you to find singing to yourself as you quietly go about your day to day life.
That’s the beauty of TMBG, although to many their songs may seem jokey and inconsequential, at their very core they are genuinely great pop nuggets, albeit one that has more humour and warmth than usual. Unlike so many acts with lengthy careers, TMBG’s continued creativity still surprises after three decades worth of albums and they continue to remain astoundingly prolific. Apollo 18 was a key album as it demonstrated that they weren’t content with taking the safe route to short term success, but instead they were in it for the long game. Sure, it drops off a bit towards the end, but given the fact that the disorientating monolith of “Fingertips” dominates it, that’s perhaps inevitable.
If you’re lucky enough to have a copy of Apollo 18 with “Fingertips” in its original form (i.e 21 separate tracks, instead of one undisectable track), then you owe it to yourself to listen to the album as it was intended – on shuffle every time. If you have an edition which doesn’t lend itself to this, listen to it on shuffle anyway. It may not be as intended, but it still works.