This isn’t how things are supposed to work. “You’re on Fire,” the first track off Nanobots, the new They Might Be Giants album, is an urgent, antsy marvel, a disco-glittered pop stomper whose three killer hooks slide over, under, and through each other, all coiled up as tightly as snakes in a cave. The same year that their ’90s alt-hitmaking contemporaries Smash Mouth and the Gin Blossoms are playing a nostalgia cruise, these guys—the bookish, cheerful Brooklynites who sang about night-lights and palindromes rather than about how being young is awesome—have unleashed a full-length that can stand up to comparison with their back-in-the-day best, two-plus decades before.
Their past two were strong, too, a late-career winning streak (dating to 2007’s The Else) so rare in pop music that, seriously, it’s hard to name five other acts who have managed it. Of course, to appreciate it, you have to appreciate They Might Be Giants, and even they admit They Might Not Be for Everyone.
“I’ve always been surprised that people can’t see how completely pretentious we are as a band,” John Flansburgh says over the phone from an undisclosed La Quinta. (Flansburgh is the bespectacled, guitar-playing showman of the duo; the other, quieter Giant is John Linnell, who plays keys, a flatulent sax, and increasingly infrequent accordion. Both write and sing.) “We started on the heels of the no-wave moment in New York, and we were playing in the same clubs DNA might have played a week earlier. Our early shows had a lot of scream-y, non-melodic things about them. The first couple of years, it was unclear where our strengths lie.”
Still, there was promise from the beginning. “I can remember the first 10 minutes of our first show,” says Flansburgh. “It’s not that we were imitating Pere Ubu, but we felt an affinity for an art-school-informed rock music, and we were doing something we expected would be difficult or confusing for the audience to take in. What struck me was not that people were chuckling, but that some seemed genuinely delighted and to get it right away.”
Creating something people could get right away became something of a mission. From their fan days they knew the immediacy of great rock and roll, an immediacy that stamps their first records—and “You’re On Fire.” Flansburgh had lucked into catching the London debut of Elvis Costello with the Attractions (“A star-is-born night,” he says), and he and Linnell had been punk-rock new-wave kids who went to CBGBs and Boston’s Rathskellar. Smart songcraft became a necessity when the band started its famous, free Dial-A-Song service, a 718 landline and answering machine once advertised in the back of the Voice. (“They have the strangest things in that paper,” an early, bewildered caller mused on a message the recorder picked up—and that the Giants later tacked onto a B-side.) Flansburgh calls the platform “unrelenting in its immediate critique”: People would hang up within 15 seconds of a song starting.
The familiar history followed. Their first record scored an A from Robert Christgau; their third was on Elektra; the label’s Warner Brothers parentage helped get “Particle Man” and their cover of the novelty standard “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)” onto Tiny Toons, and those chipper—and not entirely representative songs—won the band a legion of young fans and a rep for giddy ear-worms. After the drum-machine and backing-tapes act grew to a full band with a more conventional sound, the label deal soured—but the Giants proved more resourceful than other alt-pop victims of the ’90s grunge gold rush, branching into the Internet early, into commercial and TV work (you hear them on The Daily Show), and at last into the children’s music “Particle Man” prefigured.
Even there they honored songcraft (look up “Can You Find It?” from Here Come the ABC’s) and their punkish roots. The lead track on Here Comes Science equates angels with “unicorns and elves.” “There are people who are pissed off,” Flansburgh admits. “You have to take the lyric at absolute face value—I sing ‘I like those stories just as much as anybody else,’ and I do. But I felt that an album about science needed to be true to the nature of science. We weren’t trying to stir the pot, but we weren’t going to be bullshitting our way through it, either.”
They treated the kid stuff, Flansburgh says, like any other, as attempts to create pop as vital and thrilling as the James Brown and Beatles records he grew up on. At the same time, the band still can’t commit for long to such straight-ahead sounds. The new album, one for grown-ups, boasts 25 tracks, nine of which clock in at under a minute and were written during a recording process cut short by 10 days when Hurricane Sandy shut down the studio.
“We didn’t just want to make an album of quality songs,” Flansburgh says, and then he stops, as if that’s all the explanation anyone could want for the likes of “Decision Makers,” a 15-second jingle that echoes their daft “Minimum Wage.” Yet the multiple generations of fans who grew up on the latter—and will likely now someday belt the former in concerts—likely understand the impulse. Year after year They Might Be Giants can knock out crack tunes like “You’re on Fire” or the tender “Sometimes a Lonely Way,” which Flansburgh calls a “post-structural soul ballad.” But then there’s the band’s “freakier impulses” (Flansburgh’s phrase), where that craft is applied to abstractions and doodles, to weirdness that’s sometimes comic (despite a lack of jokes), sometimes grating (despite that knack for hooks), and sometimes, yes, pretentious or alienating, as in a few of the formalist curios on the back end of Nanobots, which can edge against that art-rock they started out with. But try “Sleep” (0:42) or “Tick” (0:11), fully shaped pop events with more memorable melodic content than some Broadway musicals.
On Nanobots, as on TMBG classics like Lincoln and Flood, all this somehow coheres.”There’s an idea I turn to whenever anyone asks me what They Might Be Giants is all about,” Flansburg says, even though in this conversation he had been asked no such thing. “It’s hard to explain, probably impossible to categorize, but it’s not hard to understand.”
They Might Be Giants perform at Tarrytown Music Hall Thursday, March 21