MGMT Week: Congratulations
Written by Mr. Harold Zo
Congratulations. We’ve made it over the Wednesday hump and now commit ourselves to finishing strong. Luckily for both you and me, we have already covered some of the ways I think reviewers have tended to place too much emphasis on career narratives, as if bands inhabited a surreal reality show accentuated by smell-o-vision and created by lousy writers. This means I can end this paragraph whenever I choose and get to the real review. Now? Maybe now.
Running through all of these MGMT week posts is an examination of how MGMT relates to its influences. While these kinds of frames of reference can be restrictive, this band has put out a shockingly cohesive body of work in its short existence. Song subjects, stylistic details, and popularity all vary considerably, but Oracular Spectacular and Congratulations share important thematic fundamentals: youth and MGMT’s musical influences. Though this record is often accorded the more difficult and cryptic of the two, there is a transparency to it that makes it, for me, a more approachable object for analysis.
There is no mistaking allusive song titles like “Brian Eno,” “Lady Dada’s Nightmare,” and “Song for Dan Treacy.” Each of these songs represents a kind of dedication, a way of paying dues to MGMT’s illustrious predecessors and, in the case of “Lady Dada,” contemporaries in the pop music world. Were it not for the band’s pervasive sense of irony and humor, “Brian Eno” might count as a hymn. Take a look here:
I followed the sounds to a cathedral
Imagine my surprise to find that they were produced by
Having just finished with the surfing epic “Siberian Breaks” (which we’ll examine later), MGMT flies into the next song tired but jittery. Do you see what I mean about “Brian Eno” being a hymn to the former Roxy Music member and pioneer of Music for Airports? Eno lauded in no uncertain terms, associated with lofty cathedral ceilings and even the soul itself. I would argue that this represents a metaphorical statement: MGMT’s musical soul is always searching for sounds, and Brian Eno is one of the fountains in which it finds inspiration. Superficially, the song has few commonalities with the dry, studied craft of its namesake. As per the band’s normal approach, it is bursting out of itself, featuring rapid-fire drumming, a dense Wall of Sound production style, and curious left-turns as in this section:
He promised pretty worlds and all the silence I could dream of
Brian Peter George St John Le Baptiste De La Salle Eno
From the overcharged and festive feel of the rest of the song, this part collapses into a lounge-y lament. Most of the instruments fall away and a sad voice comes in. Has the voice realized that there is no spiritual fulfillment even in the best music? I would say the voice is at least disillusioned. “Depressed or at least cynical” as the song preceding this one would have. Despite all the dedication and love, there is still doubt and even suspicion lingering in MGMT’s approach. Though we won’t dig into it in detail, this oscillation between cynicism and adoration is always present, keeping the words at a tension and keeping MGMT in a state of suspension. The music in both songs, as I have shown for “Brian Eno,” and which is equally true in “Treacy,” is dense and fractured, full of druggy atmosphere densely packed and delivered at weapons-grade purity. It would be sugary if it weren’t bitter, nostalgic if it weren’t so agitated, and futuristic if it weren’t so preoccupied with 1960s counterculture music.
One of the most enigmatic tracks on Congratulations is “Lady Dada’s Nightmare.” As the title suggests, this song represents another in a long series of sardonic looks into the black heart of the entertainment business. Starting out with saccharine strings and piano, the song veers and twists as layers build onto and melt into each other. Being an instrumental, it isn’t making explicit points about Lady Gaga, the art movement Dada, or dreams. And yet, listening as muffled screams and other found sounds writhe their way through the noise, I cannot help but wonder if its voiceless, creeping dread isn’t somehow the most honest statement on the album. I won’t pretend I could ever “figure out” its purpose, but it’s a fine sonic nightmare that, I think suggestively, leads into the explicitly satirical title song.
But before we conclude with that, let’s go to the beach. The first half of Oracular Spectacular was dominated by beat-driven, danceable songs that contributed to the popular appeal of the album among a younger set. Those songs also had the clearest messaging, being anthemic and clear. Here, however, “Siberian Breaks,” a twelve-minute song cataloguing the Wonderland escapades of a mysterious figure. In the first of several “movements,” MGMT returns to youth as a subject. Children’s voices intermix with the band’s. Sketched, half-remembered sayings from childhood emerge from the dream:
There’s no reason there’s no secrets to decode
If you can’t save it, leave it dying on the road
Wide open arms can feel so cold
Feel so cold
It’s a potent, if oblique, evocation of post-childhood disenchantment. All of life’s mysteries seem to be dispelled, we have to leave wounded animals where they lie, and eventually embraces we once welcomed begin to sour. Acoustic and electric guitars control the stage. When the children and the band finish the final “cold,” the soundscape shifts. A bass becomes prominent, and a more deadpan voice takes over:
Balance the books, the ledges, the loons
The disappointed look on the faces
That squint at the moon
Let’s see it with shadows enhance
And then vote to decide who’ll advance
Silver jet plane, making a turn
Exciting the brain that expects it to crash and then burn
It’s not the life lesson I’d’ve guessed
If you’re conscious you must be depressed
Or at least cynical
I would say this speaks for itself, transitioning from a broken youth to the drudgery of adulthood. Especially note how this work with the first song, “It’s Working,” which notes that MGMT sees “the signs of aging.” Though still a young band, MGMT is cognizant of how their success and that confused chronology include aging as well as youth. The music changes yet again a few times more, mentioning drownings, carrion, and lost souls. While certainly imposing at first, closer inspection reveals that the multi-part “Siberian Breaks” is not only the chronological heart of the album but its thematic heart as well.
The final track lets us know where we have been all this time. I would say Congratulations is a trip through the damaged psychology of a newborn rock star (word usage very deliberate there). Though it is even further from offering a satisfying resolution to the problems of stardom, I doubt that it should be expected to. Through their examination of psychedelic rock and MGMT’s other influences through a perceptive and cynical lens, its lyrics compliment the music. Even more indebted to Phil Spector and 1960s psych-rock experiments, it is nonetheless even more cohesive and relevant to the present. Rather than mixing in that psychedelia with dance-beats or much electro, surf rock guitars and acoustic folk elements slither in and out. Its production once again makes a disorganized melange out of its many layers. Listening to it can be draining or invigorating, depending on one’s mood, but at all times Congratulations merits its fearsome reputation. And it improves on Oracular in multiple ways. Bigger, more unified, and building even further on the band’s pet themes, it deserves closer attention even than I have given it. Let’s let MGMT have the last word here, a meditative passage from its sardonic “Congratulations.” I’ll shut up. (Note the commentary on rock stardom and the music-making process.)
The difference is clear
You throw it in your cauldron
Rust and veneer, dusk and dawn
Steinways and Baldwins
You start with a simple stock of all the waste
And salt to taste [I love this description of how MGMT works]
But damn my luck and damn these friends
That keep on combing back their smiles
I save my grace with half-assed guilt
And lay down the quilt upon the lawn
Spread my arms and soak up congratulations