I was ready to party. It was Bonnaroo 2009, and MGMT were going on in the middle of the night. I was too young and dumb to care that the band’s 2:15AM set was cutting into the end of Nine Inch Nails’ alleged “farewell” performance. (Four years later: haha, jk and also phew.) The singles from Oracular Spectacular, MGMT’s 2007 debut album, had spent nearly two years building to a point of cultural saturation. The funk throwback “Electric Feel,” the synth-psych anthem “Time To Pretend,” and especially the endlessly propulsive keyboard jam “Kids” had already become generational totems. This felt important. It had the potential to be epic.
MGMT were not ready to party. Or at least their idea of a party was not what I had in mind. These guys were much weirder than their hits made them out to be. Singles aside, Oracular Spectacular was a genuine psychedelic odyssey, discursive and trippy. Like their immediate forebears the Flaming Lips and Animal Collective, MGMT were just as likely to challenge and disorient you as to serve you up a pop song. Their show was never going to provide the kind of straightforward euphoric release I was hoping for, the kind Phoenix had delivered the previous night. It was never going to be that “Kids” feeling for 90 minutes straight. Oracular Spectacular just wasn’t that kind of record, and as it quickly became clear, MGMT really weren’t that kind of band. Andrew VanWyngarden and Ben Goldwasser were more interested in guiding you down strange, winding pathways than sending you soaring.
Two nights earlier, at a Bonnaroo warmup show in Memphis, MGMT had debuted several new songs that pushed their sound even further away from festival-slaying grandeur and toward quirky record-nerd obliqueness. These songs got their proper wide-scale introduction in that Bonnaroo set, too, and by the next spring they ended up on Congratulations, the sophomore LP the band released 10 years ago today. Objectively speaking, Congratulations is a pop record, yet it would go down as one of the great anti-pop gestures of its era — the sound of MGMT pulling the plug on their celebrity and charting a course for modest cult stardom instead. At the time, it incited widespread confusion among the less eccentric listeners who’d made MGMT a staple of their dance parties and the radio programmers who’d pushed “Kids” to the Hot 100. And although it has not undergone a Pinkerton-level reevaluation, the album has emerged as one of the most passionately defended so-called sophomore slumps in rock history.
I’m not personally ready to declare Congratulations some misunderstood masterpiece, but I concede that my disappointment with the album upon release — as well as my underwhelmed response to MGMT’s Bonnaroo set — had everything to do with misplaced expectations. Returning to the album a decade later, it’s clear MGMT succeeded on their own terms. They made the record they wanted to make, one with an idiosyncratic appeal all its own. These songs largely trade danceable grooves for tightly wound nervous tension. They very intentionally eschew choruses thousands of people could shout together across a field. Many tracks do not follow the verse-chorus-verse model at all, opting for a linear structure that amplifies the sense of an Alice In Wonderland-like journey. VanWyngarden, never the most gifted singer, often yelps as if his voice is trapped in the back of his throat. Yet Congratulations overflows with ideas, melodies, sensations. Once you abandon your demands and let it be what it is, it’s a wild ride.
If “Flash Delirium” was perplexing for basic MGMT fans expecting “Electric Feel 2: Electric Boogaloo,” it also made some kind of twisted sense as a lead single: a four-minute kitchen-sink psych-pop suite that manages to fit in multiple waves of gang vocals, a flute solo that coincides with a bass solo, and a surging Summer Of Love-worthy finale that explodes into punk chaos. This was a hallucinogenic Broadway revue from some psychic chasm between James Brown and Austin Powers; they were throwing everything they had at us. Opening track “It’s Working” pulls off a similar trick, stacking up ambitious segments as if MGMT and producer Sonic Boom (who speaks about the recording process in a new interview out today) are trying to reconstruct Phil Spector’s famous Wall Of Sound brick by sonic brick.
The pair of songs named for MGMT’s musical heroes are among the most anxiously jittery on the album. Carnivalesque horror-movie organs descend upon “Song For Dan Treacy,” a tribute to the brains behind post-punk pioneers Television Personalities, only to become pumped-up Elvis Costello organs by the end. “Brian Eno” honors the iconic producer and ambient composer with breakneck gothic indie-pop that briefly bottoms out into whispery lounge jazz. “So tired/ Soul searching,” a winking VanWyngarden begins. “I followed the sounds to a cathedral/ Imagine my surprise to find that they were produced by Brian Eno.” Even wilder are the haunted Soft Bulletin vibes of “Lady Dada’s Nightmare” and the 12-minute expedition “Siberian Breaks,” still probably the most ambitious MGMT song to date.
Perversely, only when Congratulations quiets down does it approach the straightforward accessibility of MGMT’s Oracular-era hits. “Someone’s Missing” and “I Found A Whistle” deliver that retro-tinted festival energy, ballad style. But the prettiest moment by far is the title track, a gently floating comedown for an often jarring album. Whereas their breakthrough single “Time To Pretend” presented a tongue-in-cheek fantasy of rock-star excess, here they address their discomfort with fame from a place of lived-in experience, against a backdrop of celestial plinking and easygoing acoustic strums so sedate you wonder if it’s not their attempt at heavenly elevator music. “Dead in the water/ It’s not a paid vacation,” VanWyngarden begins. Later: “Out with a whimper/ It’s not a blaze of glory.” Still later: “But I’ve got someone to make reports/ That tell me how my money’s spent/ To book my stays and draw my blinds/ So I can’t tell what’s really there/ And all I need’s a great big congratulations.”
If “Congratulations” is supposed to be a joke, it’s also the song that kept me coming back long before I’d wrapped my head around the rest of the album, a brilliant pop song about the perils of writing brilliant pop songs. Still, the underlying sentiment was dead serious. On their 2013 self-titled effort, MGMT dug even deeper into a zonked-out experimental netherworld, as if shooing all but the most adventurous listeners away. By the time they pivoted back toward the center with 2018’s Little Dark Age, they were thoroughly outside the mainstream conversation, free to pursue their muse with all the name recognition of their superstar era and none of the pressure. Now they’re out of their Columbia contract and fully independent for the first time since they were Wesleyan undergrads. They got the career they wanted. Congratulations truly are in order.