Despite Making The Best Music Of Their Career, MGMT Are Still Imprisoned By Their Past
MGMT never had a chance to sell out because they arrived already bought-in. Instead, after finding success on their debut album, the band adhered to the opposite trope, burying their heads further into the sand in their pursuit of music so outwardly antagonistic as to dare listeners to continue riding the hype train. Pulling a Pearl Jam, you could call it.
Even more so than Pearl Jam, Ben Goldwasser and Andrew VanWyngarden succeeded in their quest for semi-obscurity. At this time last year hardly anyone expected Columbia’s most uncouth signees to make music that would get stuck in our heads anymore — or even to make music people would remember at all.
That frank assessment is perhaps unfair to two music nerds who simply wanted to follow their inspiration in the moment rather than the one they’d mined back in college. But the extent to which MGMT struck universal adoration during their first go round is difficult to overstate. The band’s debut Oracular Spectacular produced three massive singles that earned the group both fervent popularity and critical admiration. If Spotify had as strong of a hold over the way we consumed music in 2007 as it does at present, “Kids,” “Time To Pretend,” and “Electric Feel” would have been in everyone’s Discovery Weekly playlist, regardless of if they listened only to top 40 or needling drone rock.
The band’s style of fluid, yelpy, hazily groovy indie pop soon came to dominate the world, taking over festival lineups from the bottom up and eventually becoming the new sound of alternative rock radio. Those songs birthed the likes of Foster The People and Empire Of The Sun, but the deeper cuts on the album, featuring the more potent strains of ‘60s-stylized tunes, also opened doors for the likes of Foxygen and other retro wave-riders. MGMT never had just one trick, a fact that got lost on the fans they accidentally courted with the oldest songs in their repertoire, the ones they wrote before they knew their music would ever be heard outside Wesleyan’s dorm room walls.
Yet even at Oracular’s loosest, MGMT were ultimately making pop music for people who thought they liked psychedelic rock. Which is why when they took an even more freewheeling, shaggy approach and began making actual psychedelic music, the masses dispersed, leaving behind a comparatively tiny hardcore fan base. This was mostly intentional, with Goldwasser and VanWyngarden spending their next two albums trying to distance themselves from a sudden and uncomfortable fame by suggesting they didn’t actually deserve it at all. In order to ensure the mainstream would not once again follow their tracks, MGMT began to wear aimlessness as a mission statement.
That reach towards something the duo considered more artistically honest left us instead with Congratulations and MGMT. The former is a mostly charming space-rock album you’d appreciate more if it had come from a different band (in fact, among music critics and Stereogum commenters at least, the notion that Congratulations is Actually Good has become so widespread that it practically qualifies as conventional wisdom). The latter is tough to stomach even if you respect MGMT’s insular ambitions.
At their best moments, which proved the two songwriters held considerable skill in crafting unique sounds and converging disparate genres, both albums still felt as though they were coming from a place of retaliation, rather than revelation. It was unclear if this music was what they actually wanted to write or what they knew people who bought tickets to their live show solely for “Kids” didn’t want to hear.
But you can’t run from surprise hits because they’ll ultimately outlast you. MGMT’s crucial misstep in trying to erase their first impression was in failing to present something equally memorable for us to hold onto in its stead. What makes Little Dark Age, the band’s fourth studio album released last month, a return to form isn’t that it is poppier and glossier, resembling more closely the hits that first introduced us to the band. It’s that the music feels purposeful where the songs on Congratulations and especially the self-titled album often felt willfully obtuse. It’s the duo’s first release since the start of their career that doesn’t seem to be single-mindedly fixated on subverting our expectations. Yet it’s also a genuine surprise that savors its pleasures in novel pockets of musicality unlike both the ones we’d hoped for or those we begrudgingly came to expect.
Little Dark Age is a wild record — as odd and reaching as the band’s other full-lengths — but it’s weird in different ways. Across its 10 tracks are dreamy Euro-pop like “Me And Michael,” electro goth-prog like the title track, and tropical lounge instrumentals like “Days That Got Away.” All of those songs are equally delicious as they are delirious, and they present entire new dimensions of a band that’s long been reduced to two polar extremes of simple electro-pop and messy noise-rock. Taken as a whole, the album is both the most consistent thing they’ve ever done and the one that least resembles any other in their catalogue.
What made Oracular’s most outlandish moments succeed where the second and third records faltered was a sense of space. Oft-kilter new age like “The Youth” or ‘70s revival pastiche like “Of Moons, Birds & Monsters” are idiosyncratic, but also committed to exploring in-depth one idea at a time. Even the folksier, headier parts of MGMT’s debut (think “4th Dimensional Transition” or “Future Reflections”) were in service of actual songs — featuring melodies with conviction and sturdy foundations. The band’s fleeting focus works well for accents, not the fundamentals. The music on Little Dark Age understands this. It never lets the flourishes, which are both considerable and immaculate, overpower the song’s structural integrity. The most impressive departure the album takes from its predecessors is that each track stands alone as succinct and fully-realized.
Because of their fixation on upending perceptions, MGMT now sit as a band with a mythology, but not a legacy — the prophesied breakout stars of a distinct moment they left behind for artists actually interested in writing more “Electric Feel”s. But now they are back to penning tunes that could stand in for those longed-for sequels to their early irreverently earwormy hits, doing so for what is their best album yet. Will it be enough to reclaim the career momentum they abandoned along the way?
The answer was immediately clear during the band’s show at the Anthem in Washington, DC this past Thursday night. The set opened with a lone silhouette noodling on a cheap sounding keyboard as hazy blue lighting crept around the stage. Then with the drop of a burbling bass, the rest of the band came in and steadily transformed the discordant combination of low-end and tinny piano into the title track of Little Dark Age. Some of the crowd hesitantly began to shuffle, but you could palpably feel the lack of movement for a song with an infectious, if elegiac groove. The general reception treated the tune, and the subsequent, equally excellent “When You Die,” as perfunctory new songs serving as placeholders until the chance to relive some beloved decade-old jams.
This reaction was to no fault of the band. A deft five-piece, they performed with a well-practiced professionalism that assuaged my fears from years of horror stories shared by friends who’d caught them at their most apathetic. The night’s ensemble was both durable and elastic, stretching out the music to loosely threaded jams without the compositions ever breaking or thinning out. “Hand It Over” moved with an enthralling, slippery down-tempo strut. Meanwhile the delightful synthpop gem “James” unraveled with an energy as irreverent as it was resonant, coming across like Tame Impala covering Weezer. While the visuals at times leaned lazily on grab-bag “trippy” imagery and uninspired gross-out gags, the band played successfully with stage antics like riding an exercise bike during Little Dark Age’s buoyant opening track “She Works Out Too Much” or projecting an ominous wallpaper of familiar apps during “TSLAMP,” much to the delight of audience members ironically pulling out their phones to snap a photo.
These virtues were received tepidly at best. Worse still were the two moments where the band pulled from their current mid-period. “Alien Days” basically halted the show’s momentum. Although arguably the most holistic “song” on their self-titled album, it’s still a total slog almost entirely comprising atonal mid-tempo schlock that, especially in the live setting, never seemed to stumble into something resembling a chord progression. That track deserved to fizzle out upon arrival. The humble but sumptuous acoustic pop ditty “Congratulations,” however, did not warrant such a dismal fate. Yet like the rest of the the numbers they played between “Electric Feel” and main set closer “Kids,” it never stood a chance of connecting.
Look, I’m not saying that the band’s early-era trio of trump cards shouldn’t have received the greatest level of excitement from the audience. But it’s a shame that MGMT’s live show moves along with a “three for them, the rest for us” quality. Their rendition of “Electric Feel” was explosive, but we consumed it with such inconsiderate greed that the band needn’t be on stage to perform it at all. Emphasizing how far removed that song is from the band themselves, VanWyngarden attributed it to a pseudonym, cracking: “That’s a song by the Electric Eel, it’s called ‘Electric Feel.'”
The same goes for “Kids,” which featured a riveting mid-section riff on Limahl’s campy, glorious “The Never Ending Story” that tragically seemed more fun for the band than the audience impatiently waiting for the original chorus to drop once more. Credit to MGMT for making their own amusement while delivering what’s become their equivalent of Radiohead’s “Creep,” projecting visuals of a festival crowd on the screen to really hammer home how people who see MGMT in 2018 still want the show to feel.
Hearing this song in in this context was a reminder that MGMT’s early hits sent them down a path away from what they actually wanted to be, toward the rock-star lifestyle they sardonically parodied on “Time To Pretend.” “Kids” is hooky and immediate — the polar opposite of the catalogue the band put together in the years following — and now holds seemingly no significance to them except as a professional obligation. To hear it in the resulting interviews since Oracular Spectacular, the duo immediately bored themselves with the style that made them popular. Perhaps they should have chased their more experimental muse under a different moniker; the decision to keep at it under the MGMT banner came across as an obstinate effort to reclaim their brand back from the fans.
But in that regard they’ve unequivocally failed. Their new songs are vital, compelling works, yet in concert MGMT still feel like an entity imprisoned by their past. It’s remarkable we didn’t lose MGMT completely as they dug for true identity and threw the dirt back on to bury themselves alive — even more so that their period of soul-searching actually blossomed into something as self-assured as Little Dark Age. It’s a shame that even at their most inspired, appreciation for who they are still remains outside their grasp.
While carrying on in good spirits during the show, cracking smiles and proving charming in their light-hearted disposition, the band wasn’t having fun with us, but in spite of us. Just a little over a decade into their existence, MGMT are already treated as a legacy act running their course to dutifully let us remember an earlier, simpler time in our lives. And we should be grateful! Reliving the past is one of the most enjoyable ways to spend the present. But we should also appreciate what the band is creating right now, making sure it won’t become nostalgia music that one day they will no longer be interested in letting us relive.