They Might Be Giants are an American college rock band that have been performing for over 30 years now, and their trademark blend of witty cynicism and whimsical music have made them cult favourites for many people. Although the band peaked with their second or third album, depending on who you ask, their output has remained constant since the ‘80s, and the band itself has only grown in size since John Linnell and John Flansburgh’s beginnings playing as a duo with a drum machine.
In the past decade, They Might Be Giants have also dabbled in making children’s music with the aim of being educational – however, their last album Join Us showed that they could still make a great album for everyone. That said, their style is quite childlike in its preference for simple melodies and pleasant chord progressions; if it weren’t for their layered lyrics, you could call any one of their albums children’s music. From their latest LP Nanobots, songs like “Tesla” wouldn’t sound out of place on their kids’ album Here Comes Science–only here, the band sounds humble instead of force-feeding you information.
If there’s one thing They Might Be Giants are known for, it’s the ability to turn any lyric into a catchy hook. Singalong choruses abound the album (everybody now: “Combustible heaaad!”), and even the cunning nonseniscal wordplay of “Stuff is Way” is memorable in their hands. The surreal lyrics touch on many different themes; when they’re not singing about “Black Ops”, “Nouns”, or the titular “Nanobots”, they’re discussing Oedipal tendencies on “Call You Mom”, parodying self-help books on “9 Secret Steps”, and telling off their “Replicant” (yes, that’s Blade Runner they’re referencing).
The music is almost as far-reaching and surprising in its genre. They’ve retained the alt-rock style that made them famous, but with that comes the experimentation that made them great. There are also distinct influences from Captain Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica here, with the acapella closer “Didn’t Kill Me” and the off-kilter bass clarinet touches of “The Darlings of Lumberland”. Then you have the touches of jazz on “Replicant”, the electronic beats throughout the album, the Hendrixian guitar solo on “Insect Hospital”…whatever style they try their hand at, it’s expertly done, and always throws you in a delightful way.
One of the main selling points of this new album is the fact that they manage to squeeze 25 tracks into just 45 minutes, thanks to a number of songs that barely reach 10 seconds. This isn’t the first time they’ve included a bunch of short snippets on one of their albums: Apollo 18 featured the utterly brilliant Fingertips suite, consisting of 20 songs reaching just 5 minutes altogether. The styles and moods of these songs were eclectic and wide-ranging; by contrast, there are only about five short songs on Nanobots, and none of them have anything special to offer, really. If it weren’t for their length, they would be obvious filler – but as it stands, they don’t waste too much of your time, and in fact keep the pace of the album going, making the experience even more enjoyable.
Naturally, with this kind of tracklisting it’s hard to pick your favourites, but that becomes easier with multiple listens. Personally, “Lost My Mind” and “Stone Cold Coup d’Etat” are the true standouts here, but as a whole, it’s a great album. They might sound dated, especially on their “rockier” songs, but I think there’s still a place for a band that manages to delight their listeners after all this time.