MGMT Week: Critical Noise on “Alien Days”

by tigermanifesto

Written by Mr. Harold Zo

There’s nothing I want more for my band than for one of our songs to capture the world’s fractured attention. To have some of our music arrest enough ears and–if we can ever find that music video director of ours–eyes to bring some semblance of unity to this world.

The trick is to manage the decline after that. You see, a self-respecting rock band does not seek fame and fortune in and of themselves. They want fame and fortune as a means to some other end. Once that end is fulfilled, the fame and fortune feed hedonic treadmills, or worse. You start to like being famous, which is the definition of hell for rockers-at-heart. If that happens, you become like a snake who sheds his skin and, to his embarrassment, finds that he didn’t have a spare underneath. Naked, ugly, and probably driven to the point of madness by forces largely outside of his hands.

Pictured: animal with no hands.

This is the tightrope that MGMT has to walk. As a band, I think I have their style relatively pinned down. To borrow a phrase from AllMusic’s Congratulations review, they have a “Wall of Sound” approach in the classic Phil Spector sense. That sensibility is, if we may, a kind of cornerstone for their music, and the manically energetic way they construct songs has shown itself over and over again, especially since their second album. Their new song, “Alien Days,” follows this scheme closely, favoring max over min and density over space.

I’ve noticed that people around you treat you as if you were still the person they spoke to six months ago. With that, let us turn to a bit of discussion of the critical noise around “Alien Days.” We’ll break this down by publication.

One of the most annoying kinds of criticism to read on the Internet is what I will call the apologetically negative review. It wants to make sure the reader knows the author loves the artist in question. “It’s just this one time. We promise we’re not haters. We’re just calling it like it is.”

We have one such review from Rae Alexandra at SF WeeklyNow, I like this fine publication, and it makes me weep to criticize them so, but this article doesn’t seem to line up with the material it’s reviewing. Oddly, it takes the tack of accusing MGMT of running out of ideas, rather than the classic complaint that they try to stick too many in. See this quotation:

“Alien Days” doesn’t really sound like MGMT. It doesn’t have any of the guts or glory or panache we have come to expect from the band. It doesn’t have purpose. It doesn’t have, well, anything distinctive to latch onto. It’s so retro, it ceases to really mean anything in the here and now. In short, it is the sound of MGMT running out of ideas and borrowing from other people.

Whether I agree with this opinion or not is a matter that tomorrow’s review will settle (perhaps). What I want to say about this review is that it doesn’t see that this does sound like MGMT. In fact, it sounds like nothing else. Except, of course, for the fact that MGMT has always been a ferrety kind of band, fortifying their peculiar brand of hypnotic melody-making in all kinds of nostalgic references. The song certainly represents a break with the MGMT of Congratulations. It’s got the same Wall of Sound density, but it does sound more assembled than performed. I’m getting ahead of myself, though.

Ian Cohen of Pitchforkhow does this song fare?

On “Alien Days,” the duo continue to fashion psych-pop and prog in their own bizarre modernist image, which is a good thing. Time has been kind to Congratulations— in the past three years, Foxygen and Youth Lagoon are just a few of the acts who have vindicated MGMT’s protracted, less lucrative rebranding– and thus it makes perfect sense that “Alien Days” was released on Record Store Day. With “Alien Days”, MGMT become who they always wanted to be: intense, record collecting nerds making music for other intense, record collecting nerds.

I’m not sure what brand of “modernism” MGMT is supposed to be imaging. Nonetheless, I think Cohen gets closer to describing what I’m hearing. Sort of. This review has the problem of being almost all context and surface description and very little song review. For the life of me, and this is me writing as a prog musician, I do not understand where MGMT gets lumped in with progressive rock. I agree that MGMT is “intense.” Foxygen and Youth Lagoon are dreamy and atmospheric like Congratulations. What’s frustrating is that there is almost no overlap in the kinds of discussion going on between this and the SF Weekly piece. Where Cohen’s article is all context, Alexandra’s was an almost overly-minute musical dissection.

British rock touchstone NMEwhich named their tame first album the best of 2008, employed an anonymous writer to write this:

Here, however, amidst the paisley haze and sprawling structure (‘Alien Days’ clocks in around the six-minute mark) we get glimpses of greatness – not least in the half-spoken, sci-fi intro that slots somewhere in the realm of early Pink Floyd soundtracking the end of The Rocky Horror Show. A weird and kind of wonderful return.

This article contextualizes the critical parts of it with a more dour narrative than Pitchfork’s. It starts by noting that the last few years have not been kind to the band. I am sure they are doing just fine, thank you. After all, they have both a major label contract and apparent free reign to do whatever the hell they want. I would call that “kind.” That said, it does manage to, in very few words, evoke something of the song’s character, albeit through clichéd 60s and 70s culture references. Both Pink Floyd and Rocky Horror are appropriately British, of course. Science fiction-tinged surrealism is indeed a touchstone for the band, especially in their video work.

What can we tell by juxtaposing these three critical perspectives? Mostly, we have found out that MGMT is a band defined in the critical community by a certain narrative. Their mainstream break cannot, it seems, fail to be mentioned. What each critic does, in his or her own way, is find the words to sound critically distant without sounding hateful. This is the curse that a band with a handful of hits has to bear. MGMT has been retreating and remaking themselves away from their debut ever since it dropped. Of course, now I’m spinning my own yarns.

I am somewhat disappointed with the obvious hastiness and brevity of these reviews. I understand that it is one song, but nothing here gets beyond the first layer. No one even bothers to address the lyrics or thematics of the song, nor is there much discussion of sonic specifics. It’s just enough to let the critic pass a kind of summary judgment. I know I’m not  a pro, but I hope to do better tomorrow.