They Might Be Giants – “Nanobots”
They Might Be Giants might be human. They’ve been around for multiple decades, they are moderately successful and have never been involved in celebrity drama or drug addiction or any of the other things that plague mainstream rockers. But then again the main duo that comprises TMBG–John Flansburgh and John Linnell–don’t seem like the types that let a little thing like fame get in the way of what’s really important: recording and performing songs that put an upbeat spin on the everyday absurdity of modern life. Or in this case, the everyday absurdity of the unknown future. As the album title might suggest, Nanobots is science-fiction feeling album with dashes of non sequitur humor spread throughout. TMBG are grown-ups that are children at heart, and their songs come off as being a perfectly suited for younger people who are smart enough to appreciate quirkiness or older folks that can still think like a kid.
Science and the future are the major themes of this album. The title track is about the nature of a futuristic robot revolt, about how technology can seem like microscopic magic when in reality complex systems are at work. In the song, the narrator sings, “All I see are pictures of matchstick men,” which is a reference to the paintings of L.S. Lowry depicting the working class in scenes where the people look like tiny ants from far away. For me, “Nanobots” is a cautionary tale about the possible unionization of tiny robots. Then there is “Tesla,” a track about the inventor credited with discovering how to harness electric currents for energy. The supernatural inventions he is credited with are listed in the song’s lyrics, almost attesting that Tesla was from another world. “Replicant” has a film-noirish sound and considers the possibility that artificial intelligence is still prey to the range of emotions found in human intelligence.
With songs like “Call You Mom” and “Circular Karate Chops,” the mood is set for eccentricity and off-color remarks. Quirkiness is added to the mixture of electronic sound effects and the unmistakable TMBG vocals; I think the recipe called for 1 TSP but then more was tossed in, some songs just drowning in the stuff. “Call You Mom” is a song that borrows a little from popular Freudian psychology, in which the narrator suggests that the object of his affection reminds him of his mother: “Why don’t you let me call you that?/ You’re acting so much like my mom/ She didn’t like it when I called her name, you and her are the same.” The tone of this song encapsulates the childish attitude of “talking back” and the jokiness that is prevalent on the album. The mixture of unorthodox statements and peculiar subject matter is at times mind-boggling, but as with most TMBG songs the listener is pleasantly distracted by the catchy melodies that will get stuck in your head.
There are so many songs that are simply the idea for a song, but not fully carried-out, very short snippets that range from 6 seconds to just about a minute in length. Again, the motivation behind the creativity asks the question, “Is this play or is this high-minded art?” Perhaps the short sound bytes are meant to make us think about the nature of songs, like how old-school punk music blasts out quick numbers as a way of rejecting the typical formula behind songwriting. What more can one say in a 12-second song titled “Tick” other than, “If it wasn’t for that tick/ We would not be in this predicament”?
Nanobots is an album that doesn’t take itself seriously, or does it? It’s the postmodern quandary that Nanobots presents to anyone that’s willing to listen, whether you are a seasoned fan or a curious bystander.
Review by Erin Yepis.
They Might be Giants will play at the Ogden Theater on June 7.