When one thinks of MGMT in the last decade, the words “self sabotage” come to mind. 2007’s Oracular Spectacular is arguably amongst the best albums of the last decade. It made them an accidental sensation; a duo of experimental college wunder-kids with keyboards who had the message and look to be the face of a generation.
If your memory needs jogging, “Electric Feel”, “Time To Pretend” and “Kids” are responsible for this meteoric rise to fame. It wasn’t totally a one-hit-wonder scenario though, because MGMT’s care-free psychedelia provided an appealing and hedonistic ethos that cultivated a committed fanbase. Andrew Vanwyngarden and Ben Goldwasser had an endearing identity of self-aware goofy students as baffled by their new rockstar identities as the rest of us.
This anti-star attitude that was so endearing then totally backfired on them. After the dust settled on Oracular Spectacular, Goldwasser and Vanwyngarden did just about everything within their power to alienate their fans (think refusing to play any hits on tour, then refusing to even tour at all) because if you don’t give a toss about being a celebrity, then why the hell not, right?
In the decade that followed, the duo released Congratulations and the self-titled MGMT. With these two albums came a consistent and pretty momentous decline in popularity; the numbers show the rest of MGMT’s discography has been played 4% as much as the hits. Both are indulgent psychedelic concept albums, with little to recommend them.
Congratulations, it should be noted, has merits; the bleak sixties pop of the title track is a redeeming interlude. It’s a quick rumination on the band’s misgivings about becoming so commercially successful and how this success dictates their musical output (even though it quite blatantly doesn’t).
However, this is one of few moments on the album that doesn’t feel like a bit of a joke. “Siberian Breaks”, twelve-odd minutes of insanity, is more in keeping with the rest of the record: it’s ridiculous, charming, and definitely rings of the bratty response to unexpected and “unwanted” fame.
Regardless, the fact that MGMT have spent a decade absolutely massacring their mainstream following and destroying all commercial expectation is undeniable. Releasing another album, Little Dark Age, could beg the question why are you two still bothering? with the subtext (since you hate us so much).
Thankfully, Vanwyngarden and Goldwasser, at the grand old age of 35, seem to have turned over a new leaf (a third-of-life crisis? Is that a thing?). Little Dark Age on a meta-level appears to be an effort to reconcile their pop-writing abilities with their rejection of mainstream culture. In other words, they’ve gotten over that paralysing fear of writing a chorus that people would actually enjoy.
To make a less abstract and scathing point, let’s look at “When You Die” off the new album. This song is distinctly MGMT: pitch-bent synth over everything, buzzy bass and heaps of vocal reverb. The build up and first chorus/break are backed by rattling drums like those on “Of Birds, Moons and Monsters”. The chorus is a proper party, but tempered by creepy samples of laughter and assurance that they “won’t feel anything… when you die”.
This typifies the album: MGMT seem to have resolved their inner conflict by writing killer chorus hooks and then easing their consciences by (literally) proclaiming “go f**k yourself” over the top.
Or, (more sophisticatedly) using these choruses as opportunities to spread critique of modern values: “She Works Out Too Much” satirises the online dating world and TSLAMP (an acronym of Time Spent Looking At My Phone) – pretty obviously – addresses our obsession with screens.
The attitude on Little Dark Age thus feels somewhat more mature than previous albums. For instance, harnessing popularity to scatter criticisms is an intelligent move, in my book. Certainly it is a more useful approach than systematically decimating it.
Father John Misty is a nice example of this – an artist using a mainstream following to try and make people think a little more. As such, commercial success does not have to necessarily equate to mind-numbing and meaningless (although it unfortunately often seems to).
Other notable features about Little Dark Age include the fact that it feels like a lost piece of 80s pop, in all the good and bad ways. “Me And Michael” is packed with anthemic backing vocals and synths straight out of The Human League.
The title track could’ve been written by depressed Pet Shop Boys, and these snares haven’t been heard since 1989. “One Thing Left To Try” would make convincing arcade game music. Likewise, the slightly robotic feel of “James” is maybe what it would sound like if A-ha covered “Computer World”.
This oddly dated feel, coupled with the forward-looking lyrical focus gives Little Dark Age a post-apocalyptic atmosphere well-matched to its title. Maybe this is the new cutting edge. Maybe it isn’t. But it’s lightyears more listenable than 2013’s release, so I’m satisfied.
MGMT’s Little Dark Age is out now on Columbia Records, purchase it on iTunes here.
Words by Immy Hequet