Ladies and gentlemen, we’ve been hoodwinked. Bamboozled. Misled and mistaken. For the youth that we tauted as the next big thing in popular electronic indie rock have proven to be nothing of the sort. Rather than producing a single packed album with small-band charisma and big-label finances, they’ve released nine tracks of faux-70s puff. If Congratulations had been released by any un-established band, we wouldn’t even be talking about it right now. But let’s not re-write the story; MGMT released Congratulations, issuing a challenge to the expectations of millions.
If I had more foresight, I would have been able to predict this abrupt left turn. The signs were there as far back as early 2008, when I saw MGMT perform live. Already they had come to resent what hit single “Kids” represented – in concert they simply sang a cappella over the album’s recorded track, vocals and all. It’s a familiar story: Band writes song, song gets big, band gets big, band resents song. Talk to Bobby McFerrin, who hasn’t performed “Don’t Worry Be Happy” since 1988. Talk to Fountains of Wayne, who watches half of their audience walk out after they play “Stacy’s Mom.” Talk to Europe, who have reportedly played “The Final Countdown” multiple times during a single concert.
Talking to NME earlier this year, co-frontman Ben Goldwasser described MGMT’s aversion to repeating that pattern on Congratulations. “There definitely isn't a 'Time to Pretend' or a 'Kids,'” he said about the album’s tracks. The band wanted “to make sure people hear the album as an album in order and not just figure out what are the best three tracks, download those and not listen to the rest of it.” Tricky business in the modern age.
It seems to me that there are two ways to accomplish this. The first is to make an outstanding album where every single track is worth listening to– a Herculean effort to be sure, but a worthwhile goal. The second method is to make a middling album where no particular track stands above the others, each song toned down for fear of standing out. Unfortunately, it seems that MGMT has chosen the latter.
Gone are the shimmering synths and radiant guitars of Oracular Spectacular, replaced with chintzy organs and rubbery plunks. Opener “It’s Working” starts out energetic enough, but almost immediately the album begins to fight its own momentum. Congratulations’ second track, “Song for Dan Treacy” sounds like a secondhand Belle and Sebastian knock-off. It seems like the band is trying so hard to prove that they are not what people thought after Oracular Spectacular that they forget to actually show what they are.
Perhaps the most heartbreaking track for me is “Someone’s Missing.” The shortest song on the album, “Someone’s Missing” is a lacking echo of Oracular Spectacular’s “Electric Feel,” sapped of all of its energy and bravado. It feels like someone’s missing alright – even when the song picks up around the two-thirds mark it still sounds half-assed.
The album isn’t all bad. Closer “Congratulations” is a laid back slow burner that could nightcap many a summer night. The schizophrenic “Flash Delirium” sounds a lot better in the context of the album than it did when it was first released. “Siberian Breaks” manages to fill twelve minutes rather pleasantly. There are hints that this might just be a metamorphic stage for MGMT, a pencil sketch of an album that might someday be painted.
But the fact of that matter is that Congratulations remains a sketch, a half-baked attempt to distance MGMT from its previous oeuvre. Maybe it was a necessary step for the band – maybe we wouldn’t have been ready for that even longer leap I now desperately wish they had taken. But necessary isn’t necessarily good, and here it lands in the mediocre. The Congratulations mantra seems to be that this album is a grower – that’s partially true. My opinion of the album continuously improved the more I listened to it. But there came a point, around the sixth or seventh time through, where that trend reversed. So here I am, having listened to the album a dozen times, wondering if I’ll ever listen to it again.
63 — Very Good. Fans of the genre or artist will like this, but it is far from perfect. [Rating Scale]
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