“Alien Days” Review
Yesterday, we looked at the critical narratives being used to evaluate the new MGMT single “Alien Days,” which will also be appearing on their new self-titled LP. That has been reported to arrive sometime in the summer, a perfect time for a band obsessed with surfing and 1960s youth music.
Unlike the reviews that I read yesterday, which framed the new single in a context with MGMT’s career story so far, this review will focus on its relationship to a broader set of circumstances in play right now. This will be short and sweet, but I’m going to attempt to link this song to what is “going on” today in the music industry, especially as it relates to the reclamation of older musical styles. This is not to say that approaches to the song that focus on its place in MGMT’s career narrative are wrong, but I think something larger is happening here that we can tune into if we listen carefully.
It has to do with the place of traditionalism and innovation, and the oscillation between the two, that is a central preoccupation of indie rock today.
Take a look at this article from The Atlantic, a publication that the band and I tend to be fond of. For those with limited skimming powers (or a broken mouse pointer) the writer Noah Berlatsky talks about how much of “art rock” (his words) is becoming increasingly self-reflexive and traditionalist, and bands like Montreal’s Suuns are starting to inhabit their traditions much like other genres he cites, like “classic rock, blues, bluegrass.” I only lament that the author did not wait until MGMT releases its new album to discuss this issue, because MGMT’s relationship to its influences is, while similar to Suuns’, far more complex and interesting. What proof do I have? “Alien Days” makes for a good Exhibit A.
“Alien Days” is a song, as Ian Cohen perceives in his Pitchfork review, an example of MGMT making “music for other intense, record collecting nerds.” The song occupies an ambiguous, even ambivalent space between joyous reveling in traditional psychedelic dreams and wallowing in alien-ation. Alien Nation, if you will. Classic 1960s psych touchstones are all present: washed-out and distorted guitars buzzing, part-playful part-sinister synth sound effects, and eerie, apparently disembodied voices. It continues their obsession with youth, as the introduction is sung by a child. Its lyrics are cryptic, but the vocals, though uncanny, are easy to understand.
The song thus inhabits the psychedelic tradition, which was a drug-fueled and radical expansion of rock’s sonic potential in the late 1960s, and reinterprets it through an academic and historical lens. MGMT’s members have cited numerous experimental music courses taken at Wesleyan to be formative in how they approach pop music. Their last album, Congratulations, had named dedications to Dan Treacy, Brian Eno, and Lady Gaga. The band members even said they were looking to point their audience in the direction of their influences.
To bring it back to “Alien Days,” the song clearly works on the same level, though without any specific names mentioned. Even if the song sounds like no one else but MGMT, MGMT’s identity has been assembled in a magpie-fashion. It’s like the SF Weekly review noted: the band is taking others’ ideas.
The question is whether MGMT is able to inhabit its chosen musical vocabulary authentically, to think within the box and, in the words of Barry Taylor, “kick the fucking walls out.” I would argue that this song, in particular, is able to do just that. First, it provides a winking acknowledgement of its own roots. The song notes that the “alien days” were formative.
Today find infinite ways it could be
It’s a blessing but it’s also a curse
Those days taught me everything I know
How to catch a feeling
And when to let it go
While echoing some of the tropes of Beach Boys/Beatles 1960s psychedelia, the lyrics also point out that this music is like an alien, worming its way into your head and messes with your sense of time. That is what the song does. Its draggy pacing blurs the seconds together, and the lyrics point explicitly to a hazy sense of being out of time:
Be quick dear, times are uncertain
One month crawling, next year blurring
Decades in the drain [Youtube, I have a new name for you]
Monograms on the brain
Decide what’s working and what’s moved on
to the last phase
the floodgate alien days
I love those alien days
mmm the alien days
The strange elision between the young child’s voices and those of the band add to this sense of anachronism. Aliens are bizarre and fascinating to our imaginations partly because they transcend human history. Their potential existence relativize our own relationship to time and to others because they show that there is something outside our own narrowband perspective. I would argue that “Alien Days” shows MGMT fully able to “decide what’s working and what’s moved on.” Through many, many listens, the song was able to envelop and embrace. It’s certainly dense, and certainly dripping with “traditional” psychedelic sounds, but it shakes things up. I hope this portends a high-quality third release, as there is nothing I would like to see more than for MGMT to continue in this vein.