“25 unreasonable songs in 45 impossible minutes”
So sayeth the blurb on the official page for Nanobots, the 16th studio album from John Flansburgh and John Linnell. An irrepressible duo who – by this point in time – had been busy plying their trade for over three decades as They Might Be Giants, that band which managed to simultaneously fly beneath the radar, whilst also firmly inveigling its way into the mainstream, through provision of songs and themes for movies and TV shows.
To call They Might Be Giants’ output prolific would almost be doing them a disservice and selling them short, as they have not only produced albums for both adults and kids alike, but also maintained their Dial-A-Song service – first by phone, then as a website, and now as an app – through which new songs are added daily, offering them a test bed for trialling material. The Johns have also managed to find time to tour regularly, with their circuit taking them to the devoted fans dotted all across the globe. To release 16 albums in just over 30 years was a prodigious, near-unparalleled rate of creative yield by this Brooklynite pair.
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It seems almost unfathomable, then, that they should also be able to pack so much material into each of their releases. You can hardly be left wanting in terms of value for money, and Nanobots stands as one of their most packed albums, perhaps second only to 1992’s Apollo 18. Much like Apollo 18, some of the tracks here are remarkably brief, running for as little as six or nine seconds, in the case of ‘Hive Mind’ and ‘There’ respectively. TMBG’s constant experimentalism and playfulness has meant that the duo always keep on pushing the envelope to keep fresh, and a 2012 interview during the making of Nanobots described these endeavours – carried on from 2021’s Join Us – as “fruitful”.
Flansburgh would also describe the album as having “this manic pacing to it with the short songs. It makes for a different kind of listening experience”. Bandmate Linnell separately confirmed that the pair are “always trying to do new things – new styles, experimenting with things that are pretty/ugly or kind of atrocious sounding or purely weird”, with Flansburgh also confirming in the very same piece that when it came to Nanobots, they had “really approached this project with a level of intensity and focus that rivals anything else we’ve ever done”, believing there were “definitely points in Nanobots that feel like a new direction for us”, with some of the tracks being “crazy sparse”.
There are certainly no signs in Nanobots of there being any drying up of the group’s creative juices, with the third track – ‘Black Ops’ – being a prime example. Described by Linnell as an “experiment in creepiness”, the track has a satirical and biting edge, with the narrator being a drone operator who is experiencing doubts about what he does, including all of the death and carnage which ensues. All of this is accompanied by a very minimalistic, bongo-led backing for the most part, with Flansburgh explaining the idea for the rather unusual arrangement was taken from a recording of Sammy Davis Jr. singing live at The Sands, Frank Sinatra’s casino.
Its immediate predecessor in track order – ‘Nanobots’ – is very reminiscent of some of the tracks written for children, particularly on 2009’s Here Comes Science, as well as the song ‘Robot Parade’ from 2002’s No!, with Linnell having equated nanotechnology with reproduction and having kids of your own. In a similar science-based vein, ‘Tesla’ – about the inventor Nikola Tesla, and not the electric vehicle whose brand name was borrowed from him by Elon Musk – is one of the group’s biographical tunes about real-life figures, such aa ‘James K. Polk’ (the 11th US President) and ‘Meet James Ensor’ (“Belgium’s famous painter”), being their trademark form of ‘edutainment’.
On a more science fiction than science fact basis, ‘Replicant’ evokes the artificial lifeforms encountered in Blade Runner, while echoing the nursery rhyme ‘Pussy Cat Pussy Cat’, one which itself seems to have influenced the song ‘What’s New Pussycat?’. A very different tack is taken by ‘Call You Mom’, which depicts a tale of Oedipal love, the narrator having an overriding sense of abandonment issues, with his maternal fixation driving a wedge between himself and his paramour. The mental image generated by the lyrics of a grown man all dressed up in a childlike sailor suit outfit is a creepy one not so easily forgotten.
If brevity truly is the soul of wit, then the Johns’ cup runneth over here, with nine of the tracks clocking in at well under a minute in duration, like the ‘Fingertips’ section in Apollo 18. Unlike that, however, all of these brief entries feel like fully-formed songlets in their own right, rather than Apollo 18’s scattered fragments. Material like ‘Destroy The Past’ tells a story in next to no time at all, yet raises far more questions than are answered. ‘Nouns’ – lasting for a slight seventeen seconds – shows the creative struggle in finding ways of not repeating yourselves lyrically, with marginally shorter track ‘Tick’ complementing the lengthier ‘Insect Hospital’.
With the release of album Mink Car having unfortunately coincided with 9/11 when it first came out back in 2001, the production process of Nanobots was blighted by another disaster, this time in the form of Hurricane Sandy, which cut short some of the recordings, due to a loss of power to their midtown Manhattan studio. As a result, an entire week was lost from the schedule in October 2012, leading to some of the potential contenders for inclusion on Nanobots not able to be finished in time before production was wrapped up. To rue what might have been feels churlish, as what we receive here is impressive a collection as any other from They Might Be Giants.
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Flansburgh joked in an interview about Nanobots, claiming that “there is more bass clarinet on this album than any other rock album of 2013”, which is the kind of semi-serious boast which truly sets them so apart from many other bands who have an air of pretension about their work. And maybe that really is the point: unlike some other musicians, the Johns’ output never feels like work, and more like the end product of two friends who have a good time, truly enjoying what it is they do so well, never getting any airs and graces. All of the fun that they have is never a closed shop, and Nanobots – much like the rest of their catalogue – invites the listener to join them.
The very notion of nanobots as a scientific concept perfectly reflects the modus operandi of They Might Be Giants: a self-propelled organism, able to perpetuate and reproduce at the most monumental of rates. Although not actually a concept album, with the title having been picked at the last minute, Nanobots perfectly manages to encapsulate Messrs Linnell and Flansburgh in a way which they perhaps never intended, as a real microcosm of They Might Be Giants’ creativity.
Nanobots was released on 5th March 2013.