Confession: I can’t listen to They Might Be Giants without smiling a little bit, and occasionally laughing out loud. Their wry sense of humor is the one continuous thread through their songs, to the point that I wish there was a sub-genre of indie-rock called “tongue-in-cheek.” They would definitely be the poster children for it.
Predictably, their sixteenth studio release Nanobots continues this tradition, sporting a tracklist so diverse that it’s impossible to derive a central theme. (Have you ever seen an album where song titles like “Circular Karate Chop,” “Stone Cold Coup d’Etat,” “Insect Hospital,” “The Darlings of Lumberland” and “Icky” co-exist? You have now.) If the 25(!) tracks on this record seem a little intimidating, consider that the entire record is only 45 minutes long. That’s because the longest track is a mere 3:12, while the shortest is just :06. Let’s just say there’s a section in the middle of the album that plays like a manic stream-of-consciousness. And that’s just how TMBG like it.
Even the songs you might think should have a more serious tone, aren’t all that serious. Take “Black Ops,” for instance, which John Linnell performs in a voice not unlike that of a muppet: “Black ops, black ops / A holiday for secret cops / Black ops, black ops / Dropping presents from the helicopter.” Perhaps they’ve been doing the children’s music thing a little too long…who knows?
Anyhow, lest you write Nanobots off as just plain silly, consider that underneath the goofiness and seemingly random song fragments, there is often a deeper thought worth pondering. And that’s perhaps what is brilliant about They Might Be Giants. It’s actually a mark of great songwriting to be able to dress a cohesive message in a cloak of apparent frivolity—the spoonful of sugar, so to speak. Although, knowing TMBG, they would probably adamantly disavow the presence of any such message.
Whether fools or poets, it’s fair to say no one but TMBG could get away with a record like Nanobots. They totally pull it off. This record is worth the 45 minutes it takes to listen to it, if only to make you smile a little. Or occasionally laugh.