MGMT could have ruled the world. There was a time when Andrew VanWyngarden and Benjamin Goldwasser had a vise grip on pop culture, when smash singles “Kids” and “Electric Feel” and “Time To Pretend” had reached such a saturation point that all the world’s radio playlists, TV ads, and music festival playbills seemed to have merged into some kind of inescapable, undeniable MGMT singularity. They were everywhere, and they deserved to be everywhere. Oracular Spectacular, the 2008 debut album that spawned those singles (plus the great “Weekend Wars,” which wasn’t an official single but easily could have been), was the kind of blockbuster we rarely see anymore, the kind stacked with hit after hit after hit — a Hotel California, a Thriller, a Jagged Little Pill. OK, maybe not Thriller; the second half of Oracular Spectacular was far too ridden with psychedelic strangeness to match up with a record that yielded seven top-10 singles. But the first half of MGMT’s debut was such a pop triumph that they seemed all set to become that twenty-first century rarity: a superstar rock band.
MGMT never seemed that interested in superstardom, though. That much was evident at Bonnaroo 2009, when I foolishly opted to watch the group’s late-night set and miss most of Nine Inch Nails’ “farewell” performance. I’ve made a lot of stupid choices in my life, but that was one of my dumbest ever, even now that NIN is back in business; it was “Head Like A Hole” dumb. MGMT’s show was disjointed, detached, and underwhelming. When they launched into one of the hits, it was enjoyable enough, but even those lacked oomph, as if MGMT was shuffling through them out of obligation. The band seemed more focused on indulging in stringy, acid-fried Syd Barrett tributes than whipping a tent full of adoring fans into blissful unification.
So when Congratulations came out in 2010, it was disappointing but not surprising. The record did away entirely with the synth-laden pop-rock manna MGMT had become known for, focusing instead on the record-nerd curiosities that bogged down Oracular Spectacular’s back half. In word and deed, the album paid tribute to post-punk oddity Dan Treacy and ambient mastermind Brian Eno. “Lady Dada’s Nightmare” was a fitting title. This was a willfully strange turn, the kind of mainstream-spurning gesture that marked Pearl Jam’s flight from ubiquity. If their interviews are to be believed, VanWyngarden and Goldwasser weren’t trying to run from fame so much as chase their muse, which happened to be headed down a rabbit hole. And if Pitchfork’s description of a sea of Oracular-era headbands at a recent MGMT show is any indicator, that relentless commitment to artistic honesty has them in the uncomfortable (though still quite profitable) position of packing humongous venues with fans and sending them home disappointed.
I remember Congratulations as a difficult record, but returning to it today, I’m struck by how melodic and approachable those songs are. The likes of “Flash Delirium” and “It’s Working” aren’t streamlined radio-killers, but they’re jammed with more hooks than they know what to do with, and they brim with energy as they zoom along. Removed from the context of such breathless expectation, the album is actually pretty fun — a biplane joyride with its head in the clouds, capped off by “Congratulations,” a lovely parachute drift back to solid ground. It’s completely dispensable, but it has its charms.
If that seems like rose-colored hindsight on MGMT’s second record, well, it’s only because the band’s third record is ugly as mud. The self-titled collection ups the ante on its predecessor’s weirdness, trading naive melody for nauseous mood, attempting to capture a full psychedelic spectrum but instead blurring into gnarly browns and grays. If Congratulations is a rabbit hole, MGMT is a K-hole, the kind of bleary-eyed excursion the stoners from your college dorm might have cooked up for dessert after a hearty mushroom feast. Rather than shrugging their shoulders at stardom, the duo now appears to be actively scaring fans away, although in reality it’s probably more like they’re tuning out the fans entirely. Rather than the fearsome roar of album-length middle fingers like Yeezus or In Utero, it’s a retreat to the cavernous recesses of their minds — and of their record collections. “Introspection” is the anthem, get your damn hands back in your pockets.
It’s not a complete shitshow. MGMT is full of intriguing ideas, ideas that might have added up to an exciting record if they ever seemed to be part of the same equation, a pile of half-baked creations from fully baked creators. This is some serious studio-rat shit, an album of textures that would have enhanced great songs presented instead as songs in and of themselves. It’s like that Doldrums record from last year, only even less tethered to the concept of melody. Many of the soundscapes here could pass as movie scores, particularly closer “An Orphan Of Fortune,” a glacial grimace that sounds like an old, disintegrating Cocteau Twins cassette, and “Astro-Mancy,” a skittering dystopian drone. “A Good Sadness,” “I Love You Too, Death,” and “Plenty Of Girls In The Sea” are all better Animal Collective songs than most of the Centipede Hz tracklist, but their pleasures are few and fleeting. “Cool Song No. 2″ is only kind of cool and only kind of a song. “Mystery Disease” imagines the worst possible outcome of the Pink Floyd+DJ Shadow combination that supposedly spawned OK Computer. Singles “Alien Days” and “Your Life Is A Lie” are brisk enough to pass for Congratulations B-sides but are as inessential as that description suggests.
The whole thing plays like B-sides, actually, and not tight-as-fuck reward-your-superfans B-sides. It’s meandering music from musicians who can afford to meander. Despite the promise inherent in its component parts, MGMT is flightier and less satisfying than Congratulations. It makes that spacey second half of Oracular Spectacular — an LP side that got most of its spins because listeners aimlessly left their iTunes running while studying for their organic chemistry midterms — seem as effervescent and approachable as the hits that preceded it. I’d keep grasping for outside reference points, but this band that could have ruled the world seems increasingly content to remain a world unto itself. Fair enough; MGMT isn’t obliged to cater to anybody. But if they’re going to keep releasing records like MGMT, they might end up in a vacuum for real. Their target audience — themselves — might be the only ones left listening.