MGMT is one of the more misunderstood bands of recent memory. They were catapulted to stardom after the release of their first-rate debut album Oracular Spectacular, an album that went platinum and was even declared by Rolling Stone as the 18th overall best album of the first decade of the millennium. That’s quite the feat for a debut album, and it was well deserved. It was accomplished on the heels of a few extremely well crafted glamorous synth-laden rock songs that bordered on rave-friendly dance-pop; “Kids”, “Electric Feel”, and “Time to Pretend”. These fantastic frolicking songs – and the multitude of remixes that followed seemingly from every other DJ out there – were ubiquitous in 2007 & 2008 and were enjoyed by critics as well as fans of electronic, pop, and indie rock. Yet, to those who didn’t just listen to those songs and reflected upon the other 7 songs and the album as a whole, it was clear that MGMT is actually a psychedelic rock band with much broader intentions than dance pop songs. In fact, it seems as if they were perturbed by the quick success of these songs that also led to them being associated with EDM.
However, that reality become clear after the release of their second album Congratulations in 2010. Congratulations was an album that displayed the band’s ability to access a different sound and mentality. It weaved adroitly created progressions & shifts with undertones of surfer rock mixed with indie psychedelia. They employed sanguine periphery sounds with moments of guitar & synth led merriment as well as piano & vocal led leisure, sometimes in the same song. And while there were excellent upbeat songs that one could easily dance to, it did not contain a single song that even slightly attempted to recreate the aforementioned “hit songs” that initially propelled them to popularity. They were not happy as being considered as pop hit makers and wanted to showcase their true musical intentions and abilities, which was also found on Oracular Spectacular, but was never focused on by the masses. Further proof of this feeling was apparent when they headlined Coachella 2010, shortly after the release of Congratulations, a show in which they played mostly their new material and refrained from playing “Kids” entirely. The result was something that this author has personally seen at a few of their festival shows; confusion and dismay by those who came expecting to rage and fist-pump, with many deciding to leave after just a few tunes. And while they have since then reincorporated those songs into their live show, the message was reiterated clearly; they are a psychedelic band that desires to push the envelope and themselves musically, and not through making mass-appeal electro dance hits. And it turned out to be darn good psych rock at that, as Congratulations really was a enjoyably elaborate and ornate album that possesses a timeless quality to it’s sound.
Fast forward to now, 2013, and their new album MGMT, which is ironically self-titled even though that is usually done for bands’ debut albums. Maybe they again want to reinforce the idea that the aren’t the band of “Kids” and “Electric Feel”, or maybe they’re just being funny. Yet what is for sure is that they again have switched things up. MGMT is not a continuation of where they left off with Congratulations, nor a revisit to Oracular Spectacular (which probably doesn’t even have to be pointed out). Where Congratulations had an undeniably upbeat and positive undercurrent, MGMT instead seems to be quasi pessimistic about it’s outward observations while simultaneously projecting a feeling of self contentedness. It seems they may still have an issue with how they have been perceived, but place the blame squarely on the exterior world. And while the lyrics are often obscured by other sounds, lending to a tangible sense of mystery, the song titles speak for themselves; “Mystery Disease”, “Your Life is a Lie”, “A Good Sadness”, and “I Love you to Death”.
MGMT’s “Alien Days”
Taken on it’s own MGMT is really the story of two halves. Songs 1-5 have their own feel and style, while songs 5-10 have an entirely different one. “Alien Days”, the first track, could be seen as a bridge from their previous material to this album. It has more traditional drum and melody interactions, with discernible lyrics sung often in their falsetto’ish style, with an assortment of peripheral sounds – with most of the surreal elements being introduced via effecting the instruments being played. That doesn’t hold up throughout the rest of the album. “Cool Song No. 2” has skeletal percussion, with shakers, thin & metallic snare hits, and what almost what sounds like conga drum. In fact the piano and bass lines hold and influence the beat more so than anything else in the song. The song is dark & brooding, and while it has some diversions, it never progresses in a manner that one become used to with this band. However, the song has a cadence and atmosphere that becomes catchy to the ear (but is not danceable). “Mystery Disease” also continues this feeling of gloomy ruminations, but with more succinct and quick percussion, which again doesn’t change throughout the song. The vocals and synths are heavily effected, but again, it’s a song that after repeated plays can start to grow on the psychedelic rock fan.
“Introspection” is probably the most universally accessible song on the album, and it’s a wonder that this wasn’t the first single off of the album instead of “Your Life Is a Lie”. It slightly continues the pattern of a darker atmosphere, but by employing major chords and some Beatles’esque synth-organ there is a palpable & pleasant upbeat feel to this song. They also move back to having a more nuanced song progression, with shifts of energy and a slow but sure build up towards to end of the track. It also contains some of the more interesting and empathetic lyrics on the album; “Introspection, what am I really like inside? / Introspection, why have all the prophets lied? / There’s a season when I will find out where I am / And there’s a reason, and I will someday find the plan”. In many respects this is the finest moment of the album. But the listener is caught off guard with “Your Life is a Lie”, the next track, which is an odd little 2 minute song in which cow bell and a marching-like tempo dominate amidst a cacophony of outlandish sounds and lyrics about how we are all unfortunately perceived in the way we live our lives. It’s a hit or miss tune depending upon whose listening.
Then begins the second half of the album, in which the listener is drenched in wall-of-sound/acid-rock like layers of instruments and noises, while the skeletal and forthright percussion patterns are dropped and recede into the rest of the music. “A Good Sadness” has a prolonged introduction which leads to a song with scattered, yet ever present, synth lines. You can tell the intention has clearly shifted into creating sonic atmospheres for the listener, where song modifications are now unhurried and subtle.
They do successfully take the listener somewhere with “Astro-mancy”, the second song of the the second half. With speedy drums that pitter-patter with a thin and slightly metallic sound which move through the stereo-field from left to right and back again (almost sounding like some kind of response to Radiohead’s recent material). The vocals and synth lines contrast that elevated tempo with leisurely swells. The guitar distorts and diverts the listeners attention with it’s oft-interrupted presence. They have put a lot of thought into the sounds they introduce also, giving them as much of a spatial feeling as is possible. And indeed, if you listen to this song on widely separated speakers of any kind of quality, you ears will be surprised by sounds that seem to come from behind as well as a quite tangible movement of the body of the song.
However, “A Good Sadness”, might take the sedated progression and instrumental contrast slightly too far for the average listener, even those who enjoy psych rock. And while where the song ends is a complex and somewhat upbeat place of musical interest – with some sick bass sounds randomly introduced that sound somehow like a plane crashing in the background – the overall path taken seems a bit too much bizarre-for-bizarre’s-sake. The same could be said of “Plenty of Girls in the Sea”, the next track, which is shorter and peppier, but is quite disjointed to the rest of the second half of the album through it’s merry & simple sound (even though the lyrics aren’t so merry and seem to be about the pitfalls of having a girlfriend). That disjointedness is probably supposed to be the point, but still could be accomplished in a more astute manner.
They end with “An Orphan of Fortune”, which one can’t help to think is a comment specifically about their band. It’s a pretty good closer, with a Floyd like trippy initiation, build, and decay that is centered around a swaggering bass line.
As a whole MGMT is another reiteration that this band’s music is created for those who enjoy truly psychedelic music. It’s a decidedly different approach then their last two albums, in fact you could say it’s side A and side B are both different approaches. The band seems to have reached a point where they are completely comfortable and content in their own eccentric skin, yet still hold a bit of a grudge against the outside world for misinterpreting them after their platinum selling debut. You can sense both of these feelings in the contrasted nature within many of these songs, as well as their title/lyrics, as they attempt to simultaneously present cynicism and optimism.
Are they successful? Not on every single song, but on enough where this album is worth having and becoming familiar with – if, of course, you are already a fan of this genre of music, which is important to note. It will take time to become familiar with it though, this is definitely an album you need to hear a dozen times before you’ll fully understand it. It’s an album that will sound better the better your audio system is, as it is so dense and heavily effected – especially regarding using the stereo field. The downside is that at times on this album it seems that MGMT’s desire to surprise the listener gets the best of them. This is a talented group, but considering they had 3 years to work on this album, one can’t help but feel there are many moments on this album which belie their ability. Sometimes when you push the envelope for pushing’s sake the result is something uninteresting despite it’s uniqueness. A couple more moments of adroitly created – yet sincere – psychedelic musical delight, such as those found on “Introspection” and “Astro-mancy” would have been welcome. It’s a good album that does in moments showcase the band’s skill, but also makes one feel that their reaction to being misunderstood still kept it back from being something great. They are now comfortable with themselves, let’s just hope for the next album they’ll also be again comfortable with the rest of the world, because I can’t wait to hear what the music they’ll create then would sound like!
Written by Sean Brna
OurVinyl | Editor