MGMT – MGMT
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.
MGMT – Congratulations
During the sessions for Oracular Spectacular, MGMT’s Andrew VanWyngarden and Ben Goldwasser tossed around Congratulations as the title of their second album as a joke: a sarcastic reference to the fame they didn’t think they would garner after their début. Hell, even their first single “Time To Pretend” laughed at the idea of the rock and roll lifestyle as just a ridiculous fantasy of theirs. A funny thing happened to these Connecticut boys though. Through the use of their singles in movies, television, and video games, as well as a fairly high rotation of their visually stunning music videos, MGMT found themselves with everything from spots opening for Beck, Radiohead, and Paul McCartney to a lawsuit with French president Nicolas Sarkozy. If Congratulations as a title no longer seems ironic, it still isn’t really sincere. The album deals with their fame and success, and it doesn’t exactly sound like it is all islands, cocaine, and elegant cars.
The title track’s biting commentary acts as the flip side of “Time To Pretend,” offering the pitfalls of fortune: “But I’ve got someone to make reports/that tell me how my money’s spent/to book my stays and draw my blinds/so I can’t see what’s really there.” In fact, the album seems like a reaction against the success they didn’t expect to have. The band stated that there will be no officially released singles and none of the songs even approach the immediacy of “Electric Feel” or “Kids.” Instead, MGMT has elaborated on the darker, weirder second half of Oracular Spectacular. This isn’t to say, however, that Congratulations perversely avoids melody and hooks. Instead, songs like “It’s Working” and “Flash Delirium” slowly open themselves up after repeated listens, the latter being a cathartic anthem that is among the best songs the band has ever penned. Ultimately, Congratulations is MGMT’s bid to be taken seriously as musicians and not just a fleeting indie phenomenon, something more than abundant nowadays. Sure, some of the songs here like the 12 minute epic “Siberian Breaks” will be a deal-breaker for listeners expecting something a bit more user-friendly, and “Lady Dada’s Nightmare” is a toss-away instrumental not nearly as interesting as it thinks it is. However, those willing to invest their time into Congratulations will be thoroughly rewarded.