MGMT’s new album equally fascinating and bizarre
Artists that become surprise pop music stars tend to provoke concerned and eager questions from their audiences about their longevity.
The way the artists deal with their newfound commercial relevance largely determines the narratives critics and audiences tell about them throughout their careers.
MGMT’s phenomenal single “Kids” launched them to stardom, especially in the United Kingdom. Since their first album, “Oracular Spectacular,” Ben Goldwasser and Andrew VanWyngarden, the two Wesleyan University graduates who form the core of the band, have shown little inclination to try to recapture their previous successes.
Now the duo has released a self-titled album that delves even further into tangled psychedelia, making it both unlikely to attract much commercial success, leaving it a fascinating outlier in the world of crescendo-driven rock music.
“Oracular Spectacular” had its share of danceable pop numbers and even “Congratulations” tended to develop its songs in relatively straightforward ways — “I Found a Whistle” was basically a campfire singalong. Now, however, MGMT is jettisoning progression for metamorphosis.
The songs rarely, if ever, center around big moments or rousing choruses. Only one song, a cover of Faine Jade’s “Introspection,” even has a chorus, with the rest of the tracks evolving in a slow and intricate fashion, usually accumulating an incredible amount of sonic density along the way.
None of these songs, therefore, pack much immediate appeal. Their virtues lie in their detailing and their appeal is more like the slow unfurling of a mystery than a grand revelation.
This unapologetic lack of pop conventions is complemented by the band’s signature sense of irony and detachment, both in time and space. In the final song, the vocals lend some insight into the album:“The signs keep changing on me/Like a shimmering bell/Long waves enveloping me/And my plastic mind/So chewed and shrieking all the time/Feels it whirling by.”
These sounds and lyrics evoke a sense of both dread and playfulness, the former exemplified by the percussive “Cool Song No. 2” and the latter by “Your Life Is a Lie” and “Plenty of Girls in the Sea.”
By no means has MGMT lost their sense of humor, and the control of mood and meaning here makes the album worth listening to even after a dispiriting initial listen.
The band’s instrumental palette is relatively unchanged from “Congratulations,” featuring a similar array of organic and synthetic drum sounds, savagely distorted guitars and creeping bass.
With his voice mostly cloaked in effects and buried in the mix, VanWyngarden has no trouble sounding as alienated and strange as the extraterrestrials from the opening song.
Unlike older songs like “Flash Delirium,” these songs can feel not only meandering but almost sterile. The way they draw out tension can at times strain and irritate more than intrigue, especially when the tracks merely fade out rather than offer any kind of clear ending.
The album’s thornier, more imposing surface obscures some of its own virtues just by being so dense. While it is heartening to see the band continuing to pursue its psychedelic muse, there is undoubtedly a degree of listener satisfaction lost or at least deferred.
The songs in the album are overfull, claustrophobic and at times bizarre, but while they never entirely cohere they are also fun and surprisingly listenable.
This is especially true after several listens, when the overall purpose and thematic thrust of the album becomes more apparent. Dealing with aging, time, love and loss, “MGMT” is a worthy successor to “Congratulations” and in some ways even surpasses it.