To my mind, there are two ways to be a fan of They Might Be Giants. The first is to love the band and all their short, quirky songs; the second is to love the band in spite of them. It’s understandable that any band would see fit to leave their audience wanting more, but there’s an especially fine line to this dynamic, one that separates making an artistic statement as quickly and memorably as possible and just filling dead air. It’s like the difference between a punk rock standard and a Nicki Minaj single: the former is justifiable in its typically short length thanks to its passion and energy, while the latter seems like the producers wanted to allow the radio stations more time for commercials.
Of course, They Might Be Giants usually do have a purpose for the brevity of many of their songs. They (rather, the two Johns, Flansburgh and Linnel, who comprise the key creative force behind TMBG) could hardly have lasted over thirty years if that wasn’t the case. It’s just hard not to want songs like Flood’s “Sapphire Bullets of Pure Love” to last a little longer, and that’s saying nothing of the likes of Apollo 18’s “Fingertips” suite, an assemblage of micro-songs with barely any of them extending beyond 10 seconds. And despite my seemingly coming out against TMBG’s shorter tunes, I actually quite like “Fingertips,” thanks in large part to the production choice of making each song charge into the next without pause. However, I recognize it as a creative indulgence, one the band has steered relatively clear of in the 21 years since Apollo 18’s release (cue “Older” off of Mink Car).
They Might Be Giants return to the micro-song format for Nanobots, though the title track is ironically not among them. Of the 25 songs found here, only about 8 feel consciously brief, with the lone exception of “Sleep” actually managing to spin its conceit and catchy hook into a fully-realized track in less than a minute. The others don’t quite match up (“Great” only manages to be as irritating as it’s subject, which I guess makes it a success?), but they compensate for their length with self-awareness. Tracks like “Hive Mind,” “Nouns,” and “Tick” are laced with a streak of self-deprecation regarding their own slightness, so it’s hard to hold them at fault. The final track sums up the micro-songs rather aptly, in that they don’t kill Nanobots, but they don’t make it stronger either.
Fortunately, the meatier portions of the album are solid enough to hold their own. Kicking Nanobots off is one of the strongest opening sets They Might Be Giants have ever assembled, a systematic display of all their core strengths. “You’re on Fire” weaves tightly between marching verses and a chorus that begs you to sing along. Then there’s “Nanobots,” an infectiously witty tune that’s arguably the best of the lot (“Stuff is Way” functions quite nicely as a malfunctioning retake on the title track). I say arguably, because immediately afterwards is “Black Ops,” one of the most incisive song They Might Be Giants has ever written. The band takes their familiar penchant for glorifying the struggles of the intelligent outcast (a theme further explored on the catchy “Circular Karate Chop”) and sharpens it into a barbed assault on covert warfare and militarism.
There’s plenty more familiar delights here where fans are concerned: “Tesla” joins “Meet James Ensor” and “James K. Polk” in the hall of timeless historical figure ballads, “Stone Cold Coup D’etat” find’s the band flexing a darker branch of their trademark humor, and “The Darlings of Lumberland” is a ballistic rush of horns and synthesizers. Even songs that might feel like vintage TMBG by now also deliver the goods, with “Call You Mom” putting a borderline Oedipal spin on Gotye’s “Somebody that I Used to Know,” and “Too Tall Girl” properly closing out the album with a sweet, folksy duet between the two Johns.
Thematically speaking, Nanobots does leave one considering the state of the Johns lives at this point in their career. While they certainly haven’t lost touch with their roots, there is a definite awareness of their elder status at play here. “Lost My Mind” and “9 Secret Steps” make direct reference to the anxieties of holding onto extraneous baggage, and “Sometimes a Lonely Way” posits as to what that baggage could potentially be. Add to that the parental subtext of “Nanobots” and “Replicant,” and it’s easy enough to assume that They Might Be Giants have matured. If so, they have done it while still remaining children (specifically the smartest kids in class) at heart.