MGMT ‘Little Dark Age’ – Review

23 Mar

MGMT have become characters in an unfortunate narrative beyond their control; they’re the pretentious, ungrateful pranksters who deliberately turned their noses up at mainstream recognition in a haze of psychedelic drugs. As with most myths there is an inkling of truth – their last, self titled album was in some part a maddeningly indulgent nightmare that sold a tiny fraction of the band’s debut – but this version of the story tends to oversell the group’s initial success and underplay their later albums creative gains. Yes, ‘Kids’, ‘Time to Pretend’ and Electric Feels’ were some of the biggest festival anthems of the 00s but the rest of ‘Oracular Spectacular’ was just as strange and singular as ‘Congratulations’, album number two, which has arguably been just as influential in the years since. ‘Oracular Spectacular’ itself wasn’t an immovable chart object and nor was ‘Congratulations’ a commercial bomb (though ‘Oracular Spectacular’ hung around for longer, ‘Congratulations’ actually charted higher in all the key territories and was a few thousand sales away from being a chart topper in America).

Anyway, in keeping with the tropes of such a narrative, new record ‘Little Dark Age’ is being presented as the requisite ‘comeback’ album; the album that rengages with pop music and the wider world in general. And yes, again, there is an inkling of truth in that. The production is certainly more dynamic and lively, the lyrics are sharper and identifiably about things, and most notably, the choruses soar skyscraper high. But of course, being an MGMT album, it’s still a distinctly unusual pop record, one that shakes itself under your feet, and makes jagged left turns just when you think you’ve figured things out. It sounds like MGMT have misremembered songs from the 1980s, and set out to reimagine them through a 2018 lens and with their own particular idiosyncrasies. The latter is particularly important; in a world of factory line 80s pastiches and homages, ‘Little Dark Age’ stands out as being decidedly other and unmistakably MGMT.

The duo sound reenergised and reinvigorated from the off. Skewered opening track ‘She Works Out Too Much’ bends a multitude of analogue synths, squeezes in a saxophone solo, and features bizarre spoken word instructions on how best to work out. Quietly buzzing below all this is Andrew Vanwyngarden mourning a relationship that never got off the ground. ‘The only reason it never worked out was I didn’t work out enough’ he deadpans. Mgmt never exactly lost their sense of humour but here they position it front and centre once again. The song is brilliantly addictive and totally off the wall. It’s a nod to the listener that you have permission to smile, even as the world potentially collapses around you.

And MGMT don’t hide away from that collapse either. In fact, they have never sounded more engaged by, or alive to, the anxieties and possibilities of the modern age. The title track is a kaleidoscopic, ironic nightmare in which Love seeps out of policemen’s guns, feelings rot, and people grieve in stereo. MGMT are defending your right to be strange in an even stranger world. It’s a smile in the grip of tyranny. It’s a declaration about getting out on stage and smiling, despite all of the above. ‘Know that if you hide it doesn’t go away’ they declare in a world weary monotone that eventually becomes part of the winking humour. If the world is burning all around you, then you may as well go out singing and dancing.

They keep their tongues firmly in cheek for most of the first side. ‘When We Die’ and ‘Me and Michael’ are two of the catchiest and silliest songs the band have put out in years. Even the vaguely creepy ballad ‘James’ features an ear candy melody at the centre of all its deep voiced strangeness. ‘Time Spent Looking at My Phone’, a song which, as its title suggests, takes pointed aim at the iPhone generation, is daft enough to be enjoyable despite the borderline preachiness of the tone and the mandarin solo in the final third.

As the album plays out, it looses a touch of the humour and becomes more self serious and somber. Instrumental ‘Days that Got Away’, starts the slide in to melancholy and like the other instrumentals in the band’s back catalogue, it’s an interesting diversion but also totally forgettable. ‘When You’re Small’ and ‘Hand It Over’ slow the pace down further and reintroduce some of the lush acoustics and pastoral-psychedelic pomp of the ‘Congratulations’ era. ‘Hand It Over’ in particular is a kind of update on that album’s title track, with its themes of dodgy deals being done and careers being jeopardised in the name of A.R.T. ‘If we lose our touch, it won’t mean much/which door will we open?’ The song’s Rundgren-esque harmonies and reverb drenched atmospherics ensure the album closes with a haunting but optimistic tone. Even if this album fails, they’re saying, the possibilities remain endless.

Mgmt have an important legacy. Ok, their skittish and indulgent style of electro indie may have been responsible for allowing Foster the People and Iglu and Hartley to gain a footing with major labels eager to cash in on the trend, but it’s also difficult to imagine the likes of Passion Pit, Purity Ring, Chairlift and even Animal Collective, getting such a receptive welcome by the mainstream if MGMT hadn’t opened a few doors for them first. And very few of those bands albums stand up as well as ‘Oracular Spectacular’ or ‘Congratulations’, which have both aged remarkably. ‘Little Dark Age’ won’t create the same buzz or have the same influence, but it’s a giddy and life affirming return from a band who many assumed had lost their inner sparkle and ambition.

8.5/10

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