They Might Be Giants, Apollo 18

4/5 stars

The world of absurdist wit has always numbered musicians among its residents, but no band has gentrified the neighborhood like They Might Be Giants. Superb pop craftsmen with a hyperactive sense of caprice, John Linnell and John Flansburgh channel surreal ideas into a catchy deluge of fun. Apollo 18, the Brooklyn duo's fourth album (not counting a rarities compilation), orbits a planet on which such topics as death, culture, identity and dining can all be dispatched with melodic intelligence and a clever phrase or three.

Careful not to burden airy tunes with ponderous lyrics, the Giants inflate weighty topics with enough whimsy to mask their songs' unsmiling core. Following the raving garage rocker "Dig My Grave," which kicks off the album with no hint of seriousness, "I Palindrome I" moves beyond a crossword-puzzle joke to carve a grim life mask from the conceptual clay of reversible phrases: "I am a snake head eating the head on the opposite side." An inspiring ode to fine art, "The Statue Got Me High," couches its exultation in lines like "The statue made me die." Meanwhile, over in the biology department, "Mammal" makes taxonomy a treat, and "Dinner Bell" goes at Pavlovian gastronomy with enchanting gusto.

Without disguising the Giants' signature sound, the album switches genres with the dial-a-style eclecticism of a jukebox. "Turn Around" mimics Forties swing; the funky bass groove of "The Guitar" interpolates a rewrite of "The Lion Sleeps Tonight," fetchingly sung by Laura Cantrell. Another wry science lesson, "See the Constellation," mixes a psychedelic/New Wave potion for a bouncy space trip.

"Narrow Your Eyes," a touching breakup song that pays vocal tribute to the Beatles and the Four Seasons, exemplifies the Giants' masterful creative grip. But that control slips in "Fingertips," a maddening mix 'n' match indulgence: twenty-one disjointed song fragments in four and a half endless minutes. This jarring parade might appeal to restless channel surfers – on CD, the track can be shuffled into 51 quintillion variations (none of which make sense) – but those with longer attention spans may deem it clutter and use the time for a refrigerator run.