MGMT is a great band who made their records out of order.
I went to see Of Montreal on tour for their incredible psych pop anti-masterpiece Hissing Faunae in mid-2007. I had never heard of the opener so I went late and skipped them. It was MGMT. By the following year, they were playing Bonnaroo, Coachella, Lollapalooza, Glastonbury, Letterman, Conan, the Grammy’s, and everything and everywhere.
There was a problem though. The two songs that were hits — “Time to Pretend” and “Kids” — were both outliers in their discography and aim. They didn’t want to make Coachella jams, they wanted to make psychedelic freak pop, as evidenced by the majority of their previous output and the rest of Oracular Spectacular. They never wanted to be a Top 40 dance-pop band — listen to the rest of their debut record. It's all kooky psychedelia. “4 Dimensional Transition” (which immediately follows “Kids”) is a falsetto trance of stuttering rhythms, off-kilter melodies, and general psychedelic exploration. The verses are too low to sing, the choruses to high to sing, the whole thing is just solid, classic psych.
This is what they have tried to make almost exclusively since those two songs they wrote a decade ago. And those two songs have by themselves disrupted this band’s ability to be appreciated and understood. Congratulations which followed is one of the best albums of this decade, mixing clever songwriting, sea changes, succinct movements and the perfect brew of indie pop and neo-psychedelia. It was, of course, panned critically because it didn’t follow the lead of those two hits. Their entire career became a paradox. They became famous for something they didn’t seem to want on any level and continued to make weird, awesome lo-fi psychedelia for one of the world’s largest record labels and disappoint legions of fans.
The critical response to Congratulations caused MGMT to burrow deeper into their hole of nonpopulist psychedlia. Their self-titled record should have had a middle finger on the front and the title should have been “in case you think Congratulations was a fluke, we made this record so you know 'Time to Pretend' and 'Kids' were a fluke, this is us”. It contained one of their best songs, “Your Life is a Lie”, and not much else. Then five years of silence. Now we have Little Dark Age. The true follow up to Congratulations, the record that is doomed to enjoy the benefit of the regret of the music writers who panned Congratulations and also to enjoy the inevitable backlash against the backlash. The record is more than good enough to earn these accolades.
The highs are very high — “She Works Out Too Much” starts with a Gorillaz groove and a soft spoken-word but quickly morphs into synthpop meets hypnagogic pop plus a bassline that is made of liquid steel. The first single and title track “Little Dark Age” has enough darkwave to go around, plus their best pop chorus in a decade. They prove again to have the right instincts in producer choices with long time collaborator Dave Fridmann and Chairlift’s Patrick Wimberley. “Me and Michael” is about exactly as 80’s as the title suggests and 90% as good. Speaking of Fridmann, “Days That Got Away” is right in his wheelhouse — drippy synths and echoing drums on an instrumental jam session. “One Thing Left to Try” has a melody so sticky you won’t be able to read the title without hearing it in your head.
The lows are mostly lyrical — the abrasive call outs on the verses of “When You Die” don’t work nearly as well as the Elephant 6 / Syd Barrett choruses. “TSLAMP” is an acronym for time spent looking at my phone and it is twice as ham-fisted as that name would suggest. “When You’re Small” sounds a bit like a song the Simpsons would write making fun of drug music. The jams far outweigh the small missteps though.
The record ends with “Hand It Over”, whose groove echoes their greatest triumph — the title track from Congratulations. It's their “Purple Rain”, the final song jam that can cruise all night. They have claimed in press releases that this record is somewhat inspired by Trump’s presidency, the lyrics work better without specifics however. MGMT songs are usually better shrouded in secrecy or lyrical ambiguity and this one is no expression. I don’t care what “Hand It Over” means, I just love the melody and the command.
If made in a more typical order, the records would have made more sense — Little Dark Age could have been the first record, beaming with hope but unable to execute on every track, MGMT could have been the sophomore slump, still there in sound but “rushed out” by the label or whatever retroactive tag is put on it. Congratulations could have been the perfect third record that all the fanboys and critics wanted. And Oracular Spectacular could have been the crowd-dividing fourth record — the one with the big hits that the longtime fans hated but that brought them to festival big font size. Is this exercise pointless? Yes, but its also interesting. In an alternate universe, MGMT could have made perfect sense. B PLUS