They Might Be Giants have made a career out of their quirky style for years now. Nanobots is, amazingly, their sixteenth career album. Any nerd rock fan worth their salt will know many of TMBG’s biggest hits, such as “Birdhouse in Your Soul,” “Istanbul (Not Constantinople),” and “Particle Man.” Typically, their songs are catchy and upbeat, sometimes masking crushingly sad lyrics. They also have a more avant-garde and experimental side to them that has been somewhat more pronounced in their more recent albums.
I’m enough of a fan of TMBG that I usually buy their albums without hesitation. When Nanobots came in the mail, I immediately had a suspicion that TMBG was going to veer more toward the experimental side from looking at the album art (see above), and when I dug into the album, that proved true. Songs like “Circular Karate Chop,” “The Darlings of Lumberland,” and “Stuff is Why” showcase some odd but interesting sounds. Nanobots does have some catchier songs that showcase the classic TMBG style, such as the title track, which is reminiscent of their song “Robot Parade” from their children’s album No! “Tesla,” a love note to the scientist Nikola Tesla, reminds me of their other science-themed songs, such as “Mammal,” and “Why Does the Sun Shine? (The Sun is a Mass of Incandescent Gas).”
Perhaps the biggest reference comes in several tracks which clock in at under one minute. When fans noticed this, many immediately compared it to Apollo 18, where the last half of the album contains a suite of songs called “Fingertips,” all of which are under 30 seconds long. Rather than being one long string of songs at the end of the album, the super-short songs on Nanobots are spliced in between longer songs. Linnell told the website Girlie Action that the songs on Nanobots were written that way to avoid oversaturating them with too many words. The Apollo 18 suite, on the other hand, was done specifically with brevity in mind, described by Flansburgh as “hyper-arranged” in an interview with Arthur Durkee.
Nanobots also features many themes and musical ideas that are introduced early in the album and repeated later. While it would be a stretch to call it a concept album, the album is fairly cohesive. For instance, the songs “Nanobots” and “Stone Cold Coup D’Etat” feature lyrical themes that involve some sort of uprising of smaller subjects against larger authorities. “Sometimes a Lonely Way” follows the latter song and seems to be written from the perspective of those defeated in the uprisings depicted in the previous song, almost like TMBG got ahold of Coldplay’s “Viva La Vida” and nerd-ified it. “Sometimes a Lonely Way” also echoes the minimalist musical style heard earlier in the album in “Black Ops,” with a cool use of hand drums. Staccato vocals are heard in “Sleep” and “9 Secret Steps,” and several songs have a similar strong bass backbone.
While the album does have its esoteric moments, there are some catchier songs that make the album a little more easily digested. “Tesla,” “Nanobots,” “You’re on Fire,” and others are here for fans of the “Birdhouse”-style TMBG. But, to me, there just aren’t enough of those songs. Overall, I feel like Nanobots is a good album, but TMBG has set the bar so high over their career that it doesn’t feel as impressive as when compared with even their more recent albums. Join Us (2011) had “Canajoharie,” “Never Knew Love,” and “When Will You Die.” The Else (2007) had “Take Out the Trash,” “Climbing the Walls,” and “The Mesopotamians.” All those songs are better than most anything on Nanobots. Granted, it took me awhile to warm to Join Us, so maybe this album is just going to take a few listens to get into. That said, I’m going to give it a borrow it rating. But you should definitely buy the other two albums mentioned above, along with pretty much anything else in TMBG’s collection.
Here are my track picks:
“You’re on Fire”
“Stone Cold Coup D’Etat”