Ten years ago, I assumed I would stop listening to They Might Be Giants by now. Even at this point, when my love of the Brooklyn duo is as strong as ever, I’m amazed at their ability to write music that still appeals to me. When I was in high school, I liked the goofy sense of humor, the “novelty” aspect that anyone can notice with a cursory glance. Now I appreciate their amazing ability to write catchy songs, and the subtle darkness that keeps the goofy from overwhelming the songs. More remarkable is that they are at a new high point in their career after spending over a decade a little lost in the wilderness. Beginning with Join Us in 2011, and now with Nanobots this year, it feels like they’ve discovered a new thrill in writing goofy songs about historical figures and rambling insanity.
Not that they released any truly bad albums in that time. A couple (like Mink Car and The Else) were strong efforts overall, with plenty of hooks and bizarre genre shifts. But Mink Car had the feeling of a compilation of work from the previous five years, and The Else was a little thinner on the really strange detours that stand out on their albums. To get those weird numbers, you needed to start getting into their children’s albums. No! was the opening salvo, with really unusual songs like “Violin” and “I Am A Grocery Bag.” TMBG ended up being good at children’s music, partially because like kids they have a certain fearlessness to their sound, a “why not” quality that allows them to pursue ideas wherever they go. But since 2011, when they took a step back from their thriving career as a kiddie act, they feel more engaged with their “adult” music than they have in years.
Join Us worked particularly well because they refused to let the studio overwhelm their strongest batch of songs in years. There was no fussiness to the arrangements. Sparse numbers like “Spoiler Alert” sounded underwritten at first, and then opened up with more listens. If anything, Nanobots represents an even stronger set. “You’re On Fire” is their best opening track in years, combining a rambling lyric about spontaneous combustion and a driving guitar line that propels the whole song forward. Even better is “Call You Mom,” the amazing first single that sounds like it was penned by Buster Bluth.
The title Nanobots comes partially from the presence of at least seven or eight songs that are under a minute, some as short as a few seconds long. Something like this was tried already on Apollo 18 with the fan favorite “Fingertips.” But all of those little songs were meant to be part of a whole. Here pieces like “Decision Makers” and “Nouns” stand in between longer songs. It’s an album flow unlike any I’ve heard, and while some may find it jarring I think it’s actually pretty cool. It at least has the advantage of never being tried before.
Even the more straightforward songs take strange detours. “Circular Karate Chop” begins as garden variety mid-tempo TMBG, but after a bizarre interlude that recalls “Put Your Hand Inside The Puppet Head,” it gradually takes a woozy turn that manages to keep it from sounding like a Factory Showroom outtake. It even distinguishes itself with some honest-to-goodness ballads that could almost be described as tender. “Tesla” takes a different route to their frequent forays into notable historical figures, focusing on a mind that is so overflowing with ideas that it could only be driven mad. And “Sometimes A Lonely Way” gets a lot of mileage out of John Flansburgh’s vocal performance.
Obviously I’m a lifer here. I want to like this album. Nanobots still sounds very much like They Might Be Giants, and if you couldn’t stand that before this will really not work for you. But true believers will almost certainly enjoy it, and it’s good enough that new fans may find something for themselves as well. Nanobots is a confident album from a band who knows who they are, and want to explore all that that means.