Nanobots... I like small bots and I cannot lie
Review: They Might Be Giants – Nanobots
Published on March 5th, 2013 | Jonny Abrams
They Might Be Giants are back with their sixteenth album to remind us all that fun and intelligence needn’t be mutually exclusive traits in music, that wryness and optimism can work in tandem, and that it is possible to write sparkling, sunnily disposed pop songs about pretty much any topic you happen to hold dear. Will the world at large take notice? After all this time, probably not, but that’s all the more reason to treasure this glorious oddity of a band.
Any TMBG LP is likely to be amongst the very best released that year in terms of songwriting, execution, lyrics and originality, but will you see them cropping up in those end-of-year top tens? And will Rocksucker ever stop relying on rhetorical questions as lazy journalistic devices? Probably not, and we’ll work on it.
Look, the point is that to still be on this kind of form sixteen albums in is really quite astonishing. 2011’s Join Us was wall-to-wall treats, and Nanobots at once services our craving for genuinely great pop songs and fuels our expectation for the next record, whenever that may arrive. Johns Linnell and Flansburgh are a phenomenally prolific songwriting team, although the quantity on their production line pales in comparison to the long-since-established fact that they couldn’t write a bad song even if they tried.
Linnell’s “You’re on Fire” is every bit as instantly winning an opener as “Can’t Keep Johnny Down”: straight off the bat, it shows TMBG to be as novel, energetic, entertaining and idiosyncratic as ever, being as it is top-notch twist-along pop with lyrics about someone’s head being on fire. That female backing vocal refrain of “combustible head!” is so great that we at Rocksucker shall now devote the rest of our lives to capturing its essence in some tangible form so that we may download it onto a robot and marry it.
On second thoughts, we’d only wind up having affairs with the ravishing pair “You’re hard to get to know, but you’re easy to spot in a crowd” and “As I’m sure you’re aware, you’ve got one of those rare combustible heads / I read an article all about them”. Let them eat Maroon 5, eh? We’ll pin our colours firmly to the TMBG mast and enjoy the fantastically well thought-out overlapping backing vocal motif of the ensuing title track, the melodic nourishment of which is tempered by a lyrical reference to “Pictures of Matchstick Men”, even though Status Quo would be quite far down the list of any right-thinking person’s assumed influences on TMBG.
Flansburgh takes centre stage for “Black Ops”, presumably an ode to the titular video game, and although it misses an opportunity to appropriate the refrain from KRS-One’s “Black Cops” it rhymes “spot you missed” with “communist”, leads a sparse arrangement led by a murky electric piano progression into a bit of a rock-out, and generally just is very, very good indeed. When Linnell’s stately sort-of-ballad “Lost My Mind” proceeds to mask its sophistication with energising enthusiasm and an embracing lightness of touch, it becomes abundantly clear that there aren’t going to be any missteps.
And there aren’t. Flansburgh’s “Circular Karate Chop” is a total blast with its familiar combination of driving power chords and fizzing organ line, its quirkily punctuated lay-out and spoken word breakdown outlining “three rules from our sensei”…but it’s all rendered with far too much heart and loving care to feel like anything close to being a joke. As ever, the idiosyncrasies and sweet melodies work to bring out the best in each other, each one preventing the other from dominating, an entirely benevolent brand of mutual assured destruction that results in first-class power-pop worthy of closer inspection and more nuanced appreciation than the mere sugar rushes on offer from lesser bands.
“Call You Mom” is a riot, guiding “Virginia Plain” piano chords into a rockabilly riff into an early Beatles-y chorus, even throwing in a key change that doesn’t feel in the least bit regrettable, even elates within its carefully considered context. What a magnificent unit TMBG are, rhythm section rumbling delightfully away within that quirkily punctuated framework, and who could resist an opening line like “I think I’d like to call you mom / ‘Cause you remind me of my mom”? Oh yeah – great use of sax, too.
Linnell sporadically comes close to sounding like Neil Young on “Tesla”, a tender paean to Serbian-American inventor Nikola Tesla, while the snatches of chopped-up vocal used syncopatedly (it’s a word now) in “Sleep” is just another ingenious touch on an album chock-full of them. “Stone Cold Coup D’Etat”, though, is the pièce de résistance: beginning once again with “Virginia Plain” piano, this extraordinarily awesome tune sees Linnell managing to ask “what is that certain je ne sais quoi?” without sounding at all pretentious, which is perhaps a harder feat than it might sound. It’s just such a great track that you should probably stop reading this and just go listen to it already.
“Sometimes a Lonely Way” wields some luxuriously Beach Boys-y ba ba ba-ing courtesy of Flansburgh, before a suite of ridiculously short songs the respective surprises of which we shall not ruin for you, other than to say that “Tick” is the best song about a tick since this rather different number by the great Ween, also titled “Tick”.
The crazy, baroquely (also a word now) arranged shuffle of “The Darlings of Lumberland” launches itself from a Tune-Yards-y brass loop and drum machine intro, the early ’60s bounce of “Icky” throws in the intriguing line “first name getting all up in your last name face”, “Too Tall Girl” sees Flansburgh rhyming “etiquette” with “Connecticut”…and then it’s left to the thirty-second a cappella blues of “Didn’t Kill Me” to bring the curtain down on the line “I thought that was the end”. Consummate showmanship there from one of the truly great bands of the modern era, no matter how many people know it.
It’s easy to fall into the trap of patronising They Might Be Giants – cult heroes, destined to go underappreciated, et cetera – so we’ll just wrap it up by urging you to get this joyful fare in your ears immediately, especially if you’re in the UK and are looking for something suitable to soundtrack the sudden reappearance of dear old Mr Blue Sky. Ace, ace and thrice ace.
Rocksucker says: Four and a Half Quails out of Five!
Nanobots is out now on Lojinx in the UK and Europe, Idlewild in the US and Breakaway in Australia. For more information, please visit www.theymightbegiants.com