If I met the members of MGMT personally, I would first spit in their faces. Then I would thank them for making such weird music.
I suppose I should be more grateful — MGMT is such a massive improvement as an album over 2010’s aimless and depressing Congratulations, which, despite some excellent tunes, was weighed down by terrible production decisions and a track listing from hell.
MGMT got the order right this time — their eponymous third album flows from one song to the next with methodical concern for emotional shifts and changes in mood and tone. Nearly every song tees up the next with masterful manipulation of rhythm and key, placing each track either as a continuation or a striking deviation from the direction of its predecessor. The fading outro of “Alien Days” invites the powerful bass-heavy synthesizers of “Cool Song No. 2,” while “Astro-Mancy” seems more like a continuation of “A Good Sadness” than anything else.
MGMT ultimately has more hits than flops, but such a binary system is not sufficient enough to analyze the intricacies of the album’s successes and failures. Triumphant tracks such as “Cool Song No. 2,” “Introspection” and “A Good Sadness” are neither clever nor particularly innovative outside of the context of the album.
The same could be said for the entire LP — none of the songs are anything special at all, and yet the genius way in which they are arranged makes the album even more enjoyable than Oracular Spectacular at times. Or perhaps MGMT is just gratifying in the context of its predecessor, an album that is here apologized for.
MGMT is an inversion of the problems with Congratulations: The latter is a badly organized album made up of great songs, while the former is a great album made up of mediocre songs. One begins to think that MGMT can only do one at a time. I can imagine the conversation with their producer:
“Alright boys, could we try to make good songs and put them in the right order this time around?” Or, perhaps more likely: “Yeah, corral ‘em in there, lock the door. I hate doing this to you lads, but you’re not leaving that room until we have an album recorded — Christ, Andrew, don’t chew the furniture — Ben, you don’t use mallets on a keyboard! What the hell kind of drugs do we have to give you to make another ‘Electric Feel’!?”
All joking aside, it is hard to be frustrated with these trippy kings of the new psychedelic movement considering how majestic and orchestral MGMT is when listened to from front to back.
Despite what Oracular Spectacular would have many people believe, MGMT’s strong suit has never been the ability to make danceable and accessible electro-pop songs. “Kids” and “Time to Pretend” must have been flukes of budding artistry, or perhaps even attempts at being tongue-in-cheek that resulted in lightheartedness not found on their two subsequent releases.
No, Ben Goldwasser and Andrew VanWyngarden’s songwriting prowess lies in their penchant for banally grandiose electronic canvasses of noise. The unsung heroes of all three of their albums have been tracks such as “Of Birds, Moons and Monsters,” “4th Dimensional Transition,” and the epic, if not misguided, “Siberian Breaks.”
MGMT takes this trend to its logical extreme. The influence of such wandering power pieces is present on all 10 tracks of the album. Unfortunately, this means that half of the songs that could be — and should be — radio hits that are less than three minutes instead spend an extra minute-and-a-half meandering down completely unrelated psychedelic paths. “Cool Song No. 2,” “Alien Days” and “Your Life is a Lie” all forsake strong conclusions for impotent crawls into the abyss.
The only song that manages to meander correctly is “A Good Sadness,” which, despite following the exact same set of faults already described, is the most emotionally charged track on the record. VanWyngarden’s breathy and nasally vocals solidify it into a component worth listening to, if only for a brief moment. More importantly, “A Good Sadness” is the only song on MGMT offering any proof that VanWyngarden and Goldwasser actually know how to compose electronic music. Its victorious repetition serves as a rhythmic and melodic bedrock that is missing from the rest of the album.
Despite all of this grief, MGMT remains infuriatingly enjoyable. The release moves and breathes with an energy that was missing from even the band’s idyllic debut, and it transitions from barbaric noise rock (“Your Life is a Lie”) to thought-provoking melodic landscapes (“Alien Days,” “A Good Sadness”) with a surreal confidence. But my opening statement remains true:
MGMT is a band characterized by bursts of genius interspersed with a constant stream of impudent and pretentious drivel. They’re just lucky that the drivel is as fascinating as the genius.
On the other hand, they might be just as childish as their music suggests — rowdy animals needing to be poked and prodded to ever create anything on a schedule, outside of the times when it suits their fancy to sit at a keyboard and plunk randomly until a tune presents itself.
In which case, MGMT: get it together. Don’t you know that some of us are trying to take you seriously?