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MGMT are a psychedelic band. To many, that may seem like stating the obvious, but it bears repeating, because when “Time To Pretend” and “Kids,” their two purest pop songs, became genuine mainstream hits, the public decided they were a synth-pop group instead. In other words, the image the duo made for themselves was corrupted, and the anomalies in their catalogue came to define them. So upon release, their superb second album, Congratulations, was met with some derision from fans and critics appalled to learn that the duo were going in a different direction. It’s fitting, then, that MGMT waited until now to release a self-titled album, because this is where Andrew VanWyngarden and Ben Goldwasser reclaim their identity as experimentalist weirdos, the kind who aren’t interested in penning Billboard singles. Indeed, MGMT is awash in studio-as-instrument trickery and trippy sound effects, evoking everything from the Flaming Lips at their bleakest to the tribal-psych of Prince Rama to Pink Floyd’s most whimsical sound-collages. Congratulations‘ reception eventually warmed once its detractors realized that there was plenty of hooks, melody and wit underneath the ornate arrangements and complex song constructions. I can’t see MGMT sharing the same fate: Even if it’s not abrasive, it’s willfully alienating, testing the tolerance of any fans holding out for easy pop catharsis. Of course, this would be easier to accept if the album was better than it is, and frankly, it’s a mixed bag. Taken as a bag of sonics, it works in spurts, particularly in the first half, when the songs are more grounded: “Alien Days” is an even more fragmented take on Congratulations‘ labyrinthine art pop; “Introspection” manages to sound both propulsive and drowsy, like sleepwalking motorik; the terse, tart “Your Life Is A Lie” is a darkly funny minor classic. Close listening reveals dense webs of percussion and electronics, ones that take repeated listens to fully appreciate, and it’s hard not to marvel at how smoothly all these elements coalesce. Ironically, that means for an eponymous album meant to reestablish the group, this record really belongs to producer Dave Fridmann. His unseen hand guides the duo’s every whim, reigning in the potential chaos and helping the record sound impressive, even when it’s less than compelling, which regrettably becomes an accurate descriptor as the album rolls along.

The latter half is dominated by elliptical, shape-shifting cuts that are meant to be the real meat of the record, as they completely eschew any sort of conventional structure in favor of mood and feel.  It’s a smart impulse, but they stumble on the execution, as all these songs lack any sort of momentum or backbone. They sound stuck in first gear, always on the verge of transcendence without getting there, never reaching a level that you can’t shrug off. Aside from the static songwriting, one of the most striking issues about these songs is VanWyngarden’s vocals. Usually one of the group’s best qualities, carrying the melody and his rather underrated lyrics, his voice is sidelined as another instrument in the mix. Again, this seems fine in and of itself, but his mutters and murmurs sometimes clash with their otherworldly surroundings, so, weirdly, much of the second half of the album conceivably would work better if it were instrumental. But that’s just splitting hairs, because these tracks really just aren’t very absorbing or transportive. And not even the rosy-cheeked “Plenty Of Girls In The Sea,” ostensibly inserted as some sort of reprieve from the spaciness surrounding it, helps things along, wearing out its welcome with half of it left to go. MGMT reveals a band in transition, certain of the path they’ve chosen, but unsure just how to walk down it. Enough of this retains the intelligence and ideas of their best work, though, so hopefully they can come back with something more thought-through next time.