MGMT: MGMT: MGMT: MGMT
Written by Mr. Harold Zo
My title of “mister” is forever a badge of shame. I was meant to follow in the footsteps of Queen master guitarist and astrophysics PhD holder Brian May, but those dreams foundered when I was forced to take care of family members by playing gigs instead of pursuing studies. I don’t regret helping my family, and people in the band tend not to talk about it, but I like wearing the “mister” as a constant reminder of the hard choices I needed to make to get where I am. Now, selling my soul to the devil’s secretary in exchange for hardcore shredding skills–that might be more of a regret. Especially since my payments are coming due in only a few decades.
Bands that become surprise pop music stars tend to provoke concerned and eager questions from their audiences about their longevity. How the artists deal with their newfound commercial relevance in large part determines the narratives critics and audiences tell about them throughout the rest of their career. MGMT’s phenomenal single, “Kids,” launched them to stardom, especially in the UK. Since their first album, “Oracular Spectacular,” Ben Goldwasser and Andrew VanWyngarden, the two Wesleyan University graduates who form the core of the band, have shown little inclination to try to recapture their previous successes. Their defiantly uncommercial 2010 album, “Congratulations,” according to a recent cover story by Pitchfork and this reviewer’s own experience, is largely ignored by MGMT’s live audiences. Now the duo has released a self-titled release that delves even further into tangled psychedelia, making it both unlikely to attract much commercial success and a fascinating outlier in the world of rock music.
Most independent rock bands that have achieved some commercial success tend to build their songs around tense buildups to massive crescendos. Arcade Fire, Mumford and Sons, and even more eccentric outliers like Bon Iver, use tension as a means to a more thunderous end. While “Oracular Spectacular” had its share of danceable pop numbers and even “Congratulations” tended to develop its songs in relatively straightforward ways–”I Found a Whistle” was basically a campfire sing-along–MGMT jettisons progression for metamorphosis. In short, the songs rarely if ever centre around big moments or rousing choruses. Only one song, “Introspection, even has a chorus, with the rest of the tracks evolving in a slow and intricate fashion, usually accumulating an incredible amount of sonic density along the way.
None of these songs, therefore, have much immediate appeal. Their virtues lie in their detailing, and their appeal is more like the slow unfurling of a mystery than a grand revelation. This unapologetic lack of pop signifiers is complimented by the band’s signature sense of irony and detachment, both in time and space. In the final song, the vocals lend us some insight into the album: “The signs keep changing on me/ Like a shimmering bell/Long waves enveloping me/ And my plastic mind/ So chewed and shrieking all the time/Feels it whirling by.” These sounds and lyrics evoke a shared sense of both dread and playfulness, the former exemplified by the percussive “Cool Song No. 2” and the latter by “Your Life Is a Lie” and “Plenty of Girls in the Sea.” By no means has MGMT lost its sense of humor, and the control of mood and meaning here makes the album worth sticking to even after a dispiriting first listen.
The band’s instrumental palette is relatively unchanged from “Congratulations,” featuring a similar array of organic and synthetic drum sounds, savagely distorted guitars, and creeping bass. With his voice largely cloaked in effects and buried in the mix, VanWyngarden has no trouble sounding as alienated and strange as the extraterrestrials from the opening song. Unlike older songs like “Flash Delirium” these songs can feel not only meandering but almost sterile, and the way songs draw out tension can strain and irritate more than intrigue at times, especially when the tracks merely fade out rather than offer any kind of clear ending. The album’s thornier, more imposing surface obscures some of its own virtues just by being so dense. While it is heartening to see the band continuing to pursue its psychedelic muse, there is undoubtedly a degree of listener satisfaction lost or at least deferred here as well.
After the album’s hazy close, however, I felt a certain emptiness. The songs here are overfull, claustrophobic, and at times bizarre, but while they never entirely cohere they are also fun and surprisingly listenable. This is especially true after several listens, when the overall purpose and thematic thrust of the album becomes more apparent. Dealing with aging, time, love, and loss, MGMT is a worthy successor to Congratulations and even surpasses that work in some ways. The way you feel about that other record will indicate whether this is something for you or not.