Okay guys, I’m gonna be real with you: it is hard being a They Might Be Giants fan. I’ve spent a good part of my adult life trying to convince people that this band rules, but it often falls on deaf ears. Once, I went so far as to give a group of uninitiated friends extra tickets to see TMBG, only to have said friends leave a few songs into the show. I think part of the reason TMBG seem so impenetrable is because of their singular ability to tap into an emotion a friend of mine once described as “happy sadness.” The band’s music is often unapologetically silly, but lurking underneath even the goofiest moments is an undeniable sense of melancholy. These sentiments of John Flansburg and John Linnel’s are far too uncommon in an age where ironic appropriations of other decade’s music are considered cutting edge. That’s not meant to be a criticism of genres such as vaporwave, but I think that this modern irony/cynicism may partially be why the Johns’ new music is often overlooked or pigeonholed, despite the fact that their last two albums are quite possibly some of the best of their career.
2011’s Join Us easily ranks among Lincoln and Flood as one of TMBG’s most consistent records. It found the band experimenting with electronic production while tightening up their power pop prowess. Lyrically, Join Us was both subtly defensive and dark with songs like the the scathing “You Don’t Like Me” nearly reading as TMBG’s playful defense of their career-long aesthetic.
If Join Us was the band’s defense statement, then 2013’s Nanobots is the group’s full embrace of themselves. This time the electronics/expanded instrumental palette of Join Us often goes hand in hand with the more overt power pop moments, and a sense of goofy weirdness pervades through everything. There’s also a handful of miniature songs reminiscent of Apollo 18’s “Fingertips” suite. However, unlike that work, the miniatures on Nanobots are less radio rock deconstructions and more Maher Shalal Hash Baz-esque exercises in the ability of brevity to convey emotion.
Then there’s “Call You Mom” which boasts unabashedly E-Street Band-esque arrangements and a classic pop chord progression. While the track may have some of the more straightforward production of the record, it’s lyrically a perfect distillation of the band’s “happy sadness.” Despite it’s clever wordplay and uptempo accompaniment, “Call You Mom” is a cutting portrait of emotional immaturity and social awkwardness ruining a relationship. So, put your preconceptions aside, take TMBG’s advice and “join them.”
Nanobots is out now via the group’s own Idlewild Records. You can listen to “Call You Mom” below:
• They Might Be Giants: www.theymightbegiants.com