. . .
After They Might Be Giants second album, 1988’s Lincoln, did better than their self-titled first — anchored by the propulsive “Ana Ng”, made it to #11 on the US Alternative charts — they took the leap to a major label, Elektra, and set about recording with hotshot English producers Clive Langer & Alan Winstanley, who had been producing records by the like of Madness, Lloyd Cole & the Commotions and Elvis Costello for over a decade.
And it was it could go either way: Lloyd Cole & The Commotions Easy Pieces was the weakest of their three albums — while still having quite a few great songs, like “Rich” and “Lost Weekend,” — but Elvis Costello famously started the liner notes to the utterly dread Goodbye Cruel World with “Welcome to my worst album.” OK, so maybe it could only go one way, poorly, as I never really got Madness outside of the singles everybody knows.
From what I can tell, They Might Be Giants were the first (and quite possibly only) American band produced by the duo, and the story goes that they blew two-thirds of the budget on four songs, after which Johns Flansburgh and Linnell produced the rest of them.
However, one of those songs was the eternal “Birdhouse in Your Soul,” the first single from the album, and probably my favorite They Might Be Giants song full stop, following the opening “Theme from Flood” fanfare by fading in so quietly you have to strain to hear Linnell sing the opening, which is the bridge, because of course it is.
I’m your only friend
I’m not your only friend
But I’m a little glowing friend
But really I’m not actually your friend
But I am
Ahh, it’s a song about love and friendship! The nature of said friendship, however, is very much one-directional, as the song fades in fully driven by a backwards drum machine beat and an electric glowing organ, which songthropomorphizes the singer, who announces themselves in the first couplet of the chorus.
Which follows the bridge. Which opened the song. Because, of course, one of the catchiest, hookiest tracks ever recorded tosses typical song structure against the rocks of a distant shore. Everybody sing!
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
In the 33 1/3 book on Flood, authors S. Alexander Reed & Elizabeth Sandifer namedrop both Beethoven and the Beatles in trying to explain exactly how the transition between the first “Make a birdhouse in your soul” and “Not to put too fine a point on it” actually works musically, but it’s beyond me.
All I can do is recognize both how transcendently weird and how transcendently catchy it is, and now “Not to put too fine a point on it / Say I’m the only bee in your bonnet” is the peak of that transcendence, one of the greatest art-pop moments — fuck that, one of the greatest pop moments — ever recorded. “I Am The Walrus” has nothing on this shit.
Also transcendently weird is the fact that the protagonist of the song is a nitelite — in the shape of a blue canary — who takes their job very very seriously. Which is great! Not only will you not stub your toes walking burry eyed into the bathroom in the middle of the night, the blue canary will even light your way into pissing properly into the bowl. Hopefully. I mean, there’s only so much they can do, being a nitelite and all. C’mon dude, aim properly!
That said, their duties as nitelite? It’s their calling, their raison d’être, and they want you know that they’re fully chuffed to be doing it, as the blue canary points out when “Birdhouse in Your Soul” finally gets around to its first verse.
I have a secret to tell
From my electrical well
It’s a simple message and I’m
Leaving out the whistles and bells
So the room must listen to me
My name is blue canary
One note spelled l-i-t-e
My story’s infinite
Like the Longines Symphonette
It doesn’t rest
I love “my story’s infinite,” and not just because they bring in “Longines Symphonette” for an obscure-even-then namedrop, but because it intimates that light has always enjoyed its purpose in our lives. That’s why the Sun is always smiling!
After the second chorus, there’s car horns from The Loving Spoonful’s “Summer in the City” and a trumpet solo, or trumpet blaatttttttts, really — weird and disjointed in the context of the “Birdhouse in Your Soul” but apparently added to the song as Linnell’s reference to how fucking hot it was in New York City when they recorded it — sounds which probably should take you completely out of the song, but by the time you get to them, you’re ready for pretty much anything, so the strangest part of the song contextually is quite possibly the least strange part, actually.
What I love about “Birdhouse in Your Soul” — I mean, besides every single fucking thing — is how you can take it as just a weird catchy song about a nitelite singing to you, or you can fully overthink it and take it as a profound statement about how everything in this world has a purpose, and there nothing greater than finding that purpose. Or you can take it both ways, like me!
Because not only does the blue canary understand their purpose, they understand their place as well, knowing that they’re doing the job they were designed to do, no more, but also no less, realizing that even similar-seeming light-based jobs are beyond their ken.
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
Blue bird of friendliness
Like guardian angels it’s
And the rhymes in that verse! “Opposite me,” “ancestry” and “shipwreck-free” would be good enough, but it’s topped by “that a lot” “were my job” and “Argonauts” is equally great, or maybe even better, especially as Linnell is just throwing them right past us like so many Randy Johnson fastballs. And you know that lighthouse was as happy to do its job as I’m am to point out that “Birdhouse in Your Soul” is the first of a very small cohort of Certain Songs that mention Jason and the Argonauts. (Though I’m going to assume it will forever stand alone in referencing the Longines Symphonette.)
After that, “Birdhouse in Your Soul” is all about the chorus over and over again, because they’ve realized how awesome it is, adding Linnell’s lovely “And while you’re at it / Leave a nightlight on inside the / Birdhouse in your soul” over the top of it, one final amazing and touching touch to an utterly stunning art-pop song
And people got it! Not only was “Birdhouse in Your Soul” a massive alt-rock hit here in the U.S. — making it to #3 on the U.S. Alternative Charts — it charted at #6 in the U.K. All of this was probably helped by yet another great music video that was somehow both incredibly abstract and yet also completely to the point. Not so much to the point where “Birdhouse in Your Soul” troubled the U.S. pop charts, of course, but enough that it remains an absolutely beloved song that takes me right back to 1990 and how big Flood was in certain parts of my universe.
And while it’s not their biggest song on Spotify — their cover of “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)” is by far, for reasons, I guess — it’s still had over 38 million plays, so I’m not “Birdhouse in Your Soul’s” only friend. In fact, I’m going go out on a limb and say that it’s one of those songs that pretty much everybody loves, full stop.
And finally: maybe, just maybe, the next time you go to the bathroom in the middle of the night, you might hear your nitelite singing to you, your little glowing friend letting you know how happy it is to light your way. As it was in the beginning, is now, and shall ever be, world without end amen.
“Birdhouse in Your Soul” Official Music Video
“Birdhouse in Your Soul” live on the Tonight Show
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