opinion by BENJI TAYLOR
Talent and results – they accrue goodwill with fans. There’s a trade-off somewhere, an unsung and unsigned mutual agreement between artist and fan, that they provide us with good material, and in return we allow them room to experiment and evolve. In constructing “Time To Pretend”, one of the best songs of 2008, MGMT accumulated a hell of a lot of goodwill. They put it to worthy use on the follow-up to their debut, 2010’s Congratulations. On that record they took their fans swimming through a kaleidoscopic haze of dazzling colors, eschewing the more conventional hooks and propulsive beats of their debut, while still producing an absorbing and rewarding LP. They produced a career highlight with its eponymous tender acoustic closing track.
Those hoping that MGMT have reverted back to the more conventional sounds of their debut will be frustrated. On self-titled album number three they dive deeper into the surreal psychedelic waters that they explored on their sophomore but, whereas on Congratulations they struck a hard-fought working balance between inspired and madcap, this time there are mixed results.
Opening track “Alien Days” was a solid choice for the album’s lead single since it boasts at least some semblance of a standard verse-chorus song structure, though it’s married with typically bizarre lyrics and awkward pacing. Imagine Animal Collective on acid trying to impersonate Pink Floyd and you get close to the weirdness. It’s oddly beguiling: the child’s surreal playground singing, the off-kilter synths, Andrew VanWyngarden’s detached vocals.
At one point in the opening track VanWyngarden observes “it’s a blessing, but it’s also a curse”’; it’s a statement that betrays the patchy and uneven nature of the rest of the album. “Cool Track No. 2” is when the problems begin to arise: the pulsing bass, the frenzied mash-up of instruments, the plethora of electronic flourishes – there’s just too much going on. The soundscapes are dense and overbearingly cluttered with effects, and there’s such a lack of space – and an emphasis on fuzzy and murky digital distortion – that the aural claustrophobia becomes unbearable.
At times MGMT not only over-estimate their own abilities, but also the listener’s patience. The album doesn’t lack for flashes of stylistic brilliance – the complex chord progressions on “Alien Days”, the way they tease a gradually gestating melody from the waves of dissonance on “I Love You Too, Death”, and the driving percussion and eerie washes of sound in “Mystery Disease”. But they fail just as often – “Astro-mancy” being a prime example, a dense garbled mess of glitchy electronica. MGMT die-hards and psych-purists will tell you that you just don’t get it, but trust your instincts.
On MGMT the band has aimed for a modern day equivalent of a cross between Revolver and Sgt. Pepper, but they’ve produced the psych-rock equivalent of Oasis’s Be Here Now – an impenetrable, overwrought, hit-and-miss product marred by ego. On the closing track of their second album VanWyngarden wistfully intoned “As strange as it seems/ I’d rather dissolve than have you ignore me.” If MGMT don’t up their game on album number four, dissolution may be the only answer. [C]