Album Review: "Little Dark Age" - MGMT
After five years of silence and speculation as to whether they would ever bounce back from the commercial disaster that was their last album, the NY indie rock/neo-psych pop duo of Andrew VanWyngarden and Ben Goldwasser, better known as MGMT, are back with their newest release “Little Dark Age”. Although the album has no clear theme running through its entirety, it has many songs that address the band’s half-decade hiatus and the current state of our world. In addition to this, the band has made a triumphant return to form, crafting some of their best songs ever and reminding us of the experimental and psych pop charm they were originally acclaimed for on their massive debut, 2007′s “Oracular Spectacular”. There might still not be a “hit” like “Electric Feel”, “Time To Pretend”, or “Kids” on the new album, but “Little Dark Age” will blow you away with its dark, eerie instrumental direction, off-kilter pop structures and 80′s synth pop worship.
The band was under extreme pressure, not only from longtime fans, but their label Columbia (who knows why the major label didn’t drop them), to deliver a solid comeback album after an extremely underwhelming and under-written self-titled release back in 2013. Songs like “Alien Days”, “Your Life Is A Lie”, “Introspection” and “Mystery Disease” were standouts, but the album was difficult to get through as a whole and featured some fairly confusing and disappointing material. This comes from a longtime fan who made a concerted effort to get into their third studio album, but other than the previously named tracks, I didn’t care for it as a whole project at all. Many listeners saw the album as MGMT’s departure from relevance altogether, and even the band stated that the music “wasn’t for everyone” and that they were seemingly unable to write pop songs again.
After all, the band came to prominence in the late 2000′s off the back of monster singles “Time To Pretend”, “Electric Feel”, and “Kids”, all songs which mocked and took a tongue-in-cheek approach to writing pop songs. The band made music for fun, not even taking themselves seriously as artists. After the huge success of “Oracular Spectacular”, which is widely considered as one of the most important albums of the 2000′s and modern indie/alternative music, the band decided they weren’t satisfied sticking to a simple pop formula. Instead, they opted for 70′s inspired psychedelic rock in their sophomore odyssey, “Congratulations”, which still holds up as one of the most underrated rock albums of the century (in my humble opinion). It was an album that was incredibly experimental, vulnerable, and took listeners on quite the trip, especially on tracks like the 13 minute-long “Siberian Breaks” (as well as the 13 minute-long stand alone single “Metanoia”), and the dense and layered production from Sonic Boom on tracks like “Flash Delirium”, “It’s Working” and the album-closing title track. It was a sign of incredible growth and a giant step forward from the band’s debut, but understandably threw a curve-ball at fans of their big hit singles since the sophomore effort had not one in sight. From there, the band progressed into more weird and experimental territory, which went over very poorly with fans who’d loved “Congratulations”, on the release of their third LP. So the question everybody was wondering ahead of the rumored fourth album was, will MGMT come back to being the psych pop powerhouse they once were?
The short answer is yes. The first track to tease the album was the title track, which pays homage to 80′s emo/synth pop groups like The Cure, both in its instrumentation and eerie sound, and its goth-inspired video. The track has a punchy beat, a killer vocal performance from VanWyngarden, and an extremely rubbery synth that bounces around the whole tune and sends the listener back to 1982 when The Human League and Devo were at the top of their game. This 80′s synth pop sound could be found throughout the whole album, especially on the following three promotional singles released. Andrew and Ben fire on all cylinders on the spacey and groovy acoustic rock tune “When You Die”, which amazes with its lush production from legendary neo-psych producer Dave Fridmann, as well as it’s biting lyrics like “I’m mean and I’m evil”, “Don’t call me nice”, and “Go f*** yourself”. It stands out as a classic MGMT track, one of the best tracks the band has ever released, and a reminder of the magic of their first two LPs, as well as an evolution from it that fits snugly into the album’s sinister vibe.
Then there’s the album’s third single and album closer “Hand It Over”, which appears to be the band’s meditation on their struggle to maintain relevance. It’s a very polished track with various psychedelic embellishments, plenty of gorgeous, reverb-heavy backing vocals which all come together in a very calm and cool fashion to end the album. The last single, “Me and Michael”, is a playful and endearing track about friendship, that also has a very memorable synth lead and punchy beat that cuts right through the track, reminding me of a Prince instrumental.
To be clear, these four singles made me jump out of my seat on first listen and celebrate the imminent comeback of one of my favorite bands ever. I was expecting the rest of the concise, 10-track record to deliver and it certainly did.
The album kicks off with a driving groove and hilariously funny concept on the track “She Works Out Too Much”, which is essentially a song about a relationship that has come to a brutal end due to the male’s physical inactivity. The back of the mix features the voice of a workout tape instructor making many exercise references. The bass-line is all kinds of groovy and has a fast beat perfect for a workout, and the lyrics consist of many great lines, including “Welcome to the s***show, grab a comfortable seat”. It’s a perfect beginning to the record, and is kind of surreal to listen to, as the track begins with the workout instructor cheerfully exclaiming, “Get ready to have some fun!” It’s one of the brightest moments on this record, as well as the duo’s discography, and a wonderfully silly way to open the door to “Little Dark Age”.
Then there’s the track “TSLAMP” (Time Spent Looking At My Phone), which has some brutally accurate observations about modern day cell phone addiction, and also features instrumentation that is new to the band’s sound, and is pulled off very well. The chord progression is really quite beautiful and when the track hits the “chorus”, it’s a classic MGMT chorus with lovely orchestral keys bleeding through the mix, complementing the awesome groove. Then there’s an effect-heavy spanish guitar solo out of nowhere, and once again MGMT pack their synth pop tunes tight with detail and instrumental precision. This is a commonality over the entirety of the record–the band takes risks (and a few pointers from the Ariel Pink playbook) and tries out this dark synth pop vibe on their new album, and the execution is fantastic. This is seen on tracks like the psychedelic ballad “When You’re Small”. The song is very open and has room to breathe, unlike many of the tracks on the band’s last album. It’s stripped back, spacey, and features chilling tenor backing vocals that fit beautifully in the mix (once again, thank you Dave Fridmann). The guitars and drums sound crisp and clean, very much like “Congratulations”, and the songwriting mirrors that of “Oracular Spectacular”. Further, the album as a whole combines elements of what the band does best, and it shows how much work and dedication to the craft went into the making of the album. Even the less memorable tracks still sound like they belong on the record, and the flow and uniformity of the overall sound of “Little Dark Age” makes it an album worth returning to again and again, especially thanks to its four impeccable singles.
MGMT made fans wait a long time for new music, but it sure was worth it. “Little Dark Age” makes the band’s comeback complete through stellar songwriting, groovy basslines, danceable beats, spacey instrumentation that is loaded with detail, and the incorporation of the band’s classic whimsical charm.
Favorite Tracks: “When You Die”, “Little Dark Age”, “She Works Out Too Much”, “Hand It Over”, “TSLAMP”, “Me and Michael”, “When You’re Small”