It’s easy to discount Ben Goldwasser and Andrew VanWyngarden. The well-coiffed twosome’s rise from Wesleyan dorm room to opening slots with Radiohead, a Grammy nomination, the beds of models and starlets, and the love of Rolling Stone (who named Oracular Spectacular the 18th best album of the decade), NME (best album of ’08), and Paul McCartney (who’s mentioned wanting to make “dancey stuff” with them) is exactly the kind of thing that makes haters wake up in the morning. (Hell, they even got to sue Nicolas Sarkozy and terrorize children with Joanna Newsom.) But when a band becomes a full-on phenomenon there’s a reason (or, more interestingly, reasons), so it’s worthwhile disengaging your mind from the hype (positive or negative), resetting the frequency, and focusing on the actual music. If they’ll let you: Before you can dig into MGMT’s Congratulations (streaming now in full here) there’s that zany scratch-off Ausgang art (and custom metal coin) as well as an indulgent video dedicated to explaining that 32-page album booklet/coin.
They don’t make it easy, no, but they don’t have to … Think about their dapper Vogue photo shoot, which was far more convincing than Vampire Weekend’s (or the Horrors, etc.) poses in the same spread. This seemingly small detail not only nails part of what made these guys a quick success, it also explains why they can get away with (and thrive on) their very recognizable image: MGMT are natural, charismatic rock stars in an age when younger bands get bigger fast, but rarely have the attitudes or look or whatever to back it up. They’re more polished in that sense than any of the bands (older or younger) who’ve recently been connected to defining Brooklyn (or New York City in general). Now they’ve polished their sound.
Rock stars decide to make albums with Spacemen 3/Spectrum’s Sonic Boom, Royal Trux/RTX’s Jennifer Herrema, and (Oracular guide) David Fridmann … and pull it off. They also make statements: The band told NME they would “rather people hear the whole album as an album and see what tracks jump out rather than the ones that get played on the radio.” So a threat of no singles, even if the label’s already been showing off the slice-and-diced “Flash Delirium.” That said, as hard as you (or the record executives) look, you won’t find an obvious “Kids” or “Time To Pretend” standout. Pure-pop fans will miss those sorts of moments, though the latter’s cheeky “live fast and die young” sentiments are all over Congrats.
VanWyngarden’s said the album was written with the weirdness/unnaturalness of their quick success in mind. If you listen to the music carefully and then think about those sentiments, the shift in style makes sense, is admirable even. Not just the mellower, connected, single-free thing: The flourishes are better integrated; the hooks are less obvious (but grow on repeat listens); the overall sound is analog vintage, instead of colorfully collegiate (don’t believe the album art).
Most folks’ first taste of Congratulations came via the aforementioned “Flash Delirium,” which squeezed a cornucopia of all-over-the-place DayGlo Bowie-and-flute-tinged psychedelia into 4 minutes and change. It hints at what to expect in the album’s overall stitching: For instance, a track like the flowery “Someone’s Missing” feels pretty transitional until it blows up into more of a spacey, spaced-out psychedelic pop jam in the second half of its 2:30 … and then fades just as quickly, as if it’s continuing endlessly in some other acid trip. In that sense, some of these tracks feel more like aesthetic or stylistic exercises than full-on songs. It can feel a tad grab bag-y.
The blending isn’t seamless (at all), but a mood’s established and extended: The catchy, pace-shifting age-of-aquarius opener “It’s Working” sounds like Stereolab, then the Zombies (who you’ll think about a few times Congratulations), and the Turtles (sorta in its group harmonies) and goes down easy in a very speedy, hazed four-minute dose. It sets the ever-shifting pace. The next track, “Song for Dan Treacy,” is a more straight-up pop carnival that evokes the Kinks and a whole lot more in its phrasings and phasings. Another interesting moment occurs with languid Soft Bulletin-style sleeper “I Found a Whistle,” which ends on an upswing that phases into the the acoustic guitar strumming of 12-minute “Siberian Breaks,” a shape-shifting song-in-multiple-parts that functions nicely as a microcosm for the collecttion’s sound threads (and deserves its own essay). In it, you get loner psych, shiny bubblegum baroque, circus pulses, Beatles nods, a Floydian choir, sunsetting ’60s romance ballads, Syd Barrett spoken bits, California dreamin’, etc. Does it hold together? Not entirely, but it’s fun watching them give it a go, and there are some really pretty moments contained therein.
Congratulations evokes a lot of other things. In some ways it’s pastiche. It’s also surprising: You get a song called “Brian Eno,” but not the ambient wash you expected. It does include a pretty ambient patch as a break, but mostly the guys put together a full-on pop anthem in the man’s honor: “We’re always one step behind him / He’s Brian Eno,” etc. And at his expense? Not the best song, but maybe it’ll get the kids to check out Eno between bong hits. There’s also a gauzy, incrementally spooky Brian Wilson-esque instrumental “Lady Dada’s Nightmare” (are we supposed to hear Gaga?) that moves into the folksy album-ending title track, another downcast (or at least sensitive) bit, which has us thinking the coeds will have to learn a new way to party this time. Or maybe they’ll just have to ask their older sisters and brothers how they got down to Dark Side Of The Moon.
Is it good? It sounds good. But is it actually good or is it “good” in the way MGMT look great playing their parts? We’re still figuring that out. There’s a lot of flash, mucho ambition. It’s expansive, more grownup. There’s also a lot to digest and it’s still too early in our own experience to know if the ambiance is lasting, or if we’re in the midst of a quick Kool-Aid sugar rush. But hey, the fact that we need to take a step back and reevaluate our understanding of MGMT 2010 seems like a victory on their part.
Congratulations is out 4/13 via Sony/Columbia.