It is fair to say that MGMT have had some trouble reconciling their own musical vision and their fans’ auditory desires. But perhaps their new album, Little Dark Age, is proof that abstract expressionist Barnett Newmann’s view - that the encounter between art and audience can be considered as a meeting between two sentient beings, where either one can be changed by the experience - can hold true for music as well. Transposing this notion onto MGMT’s discography, the trajectory of their creative process and content of their output begins to make far greater sense. This exploration seems fitting for a band that has had such a turbulent relationship with its listeners.
Beginning their careers as budding musicians at Wesleyan University, New Yorkers Andrew VanWyngarden and Ben Goldwasser, known together as MGMT, started making music as a side project in college. Their first few songs, originally released on the EP Time to Pretend (though some would find their way onto debut album Oracular Spectacular) were originally meant to be a sardonic exercise in trying to make the most commercially-sounding music possible. The only problem was, against all their expectations, the public loved it. Maybe too much for the pair’s liking.
A record deal with Columbia followed, but the public adulation and countless commercial deals were more disheartening than encouraging, for people were taking their jokes seriously; the songs that were supposed to be subverting the status quo of popular music, or at least showing its problems, were actually blending into it. So they turned on their own sound. In fact, they decided that they would take a detour off the highway to pop stardom with their next LP, 2010’s Congratulations. And, well, if that was a detour, 2013’s self-titled album drove the bus off a cliff.
“They acknowledged their dwindling listenership and decided to no longer take themselves so seriously”
And off the face of the earth they disappeared… A five-year gap in albums and a two-and-a-half-year gig hiatus might have begun to look terminal, but midway through 2017 they started teasing material for a new album, and it became evident that the break had been good for them. The gigs were exciting, the tide was beginning to turn, people were warming to their new and exciting sound. Over the course of their previous albums, the mood deteriorated as quickly as the quality of their sound, resulting in jolly tunes such as ‘I love you too, death’ and ‘Your life is a lie’. But now, their art seems to have finally benefited from the increasingly negative public push back. They acknowledged their dwindling listenership and decided to no longer take themselves so seriously. They enlisted the help of Ariel Pink and Conan Moccasin (the man who Mac Demarco considers the best guitar player he knows) for their new record, whose sound is a welcome 180 degree turn from previous efforts.
Kicking off the album is the absurd ‘She Works Out Too Much’, a track with enough groove and reverb to be at home in an 80s aerobics video – spandex and all. But despite its goofy lyrics and double-entendres (working out as a partner juxtaposed with physically working out), the message is pertinent to society. It tells the story of a technological generation that has become too fickle and superficial, but it doesn’t do it in a headache-inducing way (anyone remember Arcade fire’s “Love is hard / Sex is easy” line? Yeah, me neither), nicely setting the tone for the album. The entire thing excellently toes the line between the absurd and meaningful, and by the end, the common thread throughout the album is one that MGMT themselves have admitted to having lost for a while after their debut; they completely forgot that making music, like life, was also about having fun.
And so the lyrics from ‘When you die’: “And words won’t do anything / It’s permanently night / And I won’t feel anything / We’ll all be laughing with you when you die” ring especially true when considering their creative journey. It is simultaneously creepy, funny and moving.
“The entire thing excellently toes the line between the absurd and meaningful”
‘Me and Michael’, a great song as well as the centre of hilarious and unexpected colab with Filipino band True faith (just check out the music video), is another highlight of the album. It’s about friendship and sticking together in the face of adversity. Sadly, the two songs that follow are potentially the weakest on the record. ‘TSLAMP’ (Time Spent Looking At My Phone), is another critique of the tech addiction facing modern society, but besides one great lyric (“Find me when the lights go down / Signing in, signing out / Gods descend to take me home / Find me staring at my phone”), it is slightly dull, repetitive, lacking in any hooks and generally slows down the album.
‘James’ is another stray bullet, sounding like regurgitated Ariel Pink – except far worse. After these, the vibe picks up again, with instrumental ‘Days that got away’ acting as a poignant segue into the final three songs, which are capped off with the delicious, Tame Impala-esque ‘Hand It Over’.
The best song on the album, though, is the second title track. It features a handful of powerful lines; a wavy, gothic, synth backdrop; a drum that packs a punch; and vocal effects which only serve to enhance the feeling of dread conjured by the lyrics. The song, just like the album as a whole, shows that MGMT have learned much from their sabbatical, and the rapidly sold-out London show tells us that listeners took notice.
Artist: MGMT. Label: Columbia. Top Tracks: Hand It Over; Little Dark Age; Me And Michael. For Fans Of: Metronomy; Ariel Pink; Unknown Mortal Orchestra. 44 minutes