The fourth studio outing from indie-psych's best-known stalwarts is clearly a compromise between critical approval and personal creative vision, but walking the thin red line between both fields has never sounded better.
The year is 2013. Andrew VanWyngarden and Ben Goldwasser have been making music for a solid eleven years under the moniker MGMT, yet they are still only known for a single runaway hit released at the start of their career. The critical reception of their albums has slid from enthusiastic to barely lukewarm over the past few years, and their self-titled album has just been released to a deluge of confused and unhappy reviews from two opposing camps of critics. “Not experimental enough!” cries one side. “Not pop enough!” jeers the other. It’s enough to make anyone’s head spin, and it is certainly more than enough for VanWyngarden and Goldwasser. Slinking out of the limelight quietly, MGMT enter a self-imposed period of hiatus. Not a peep is heard out of them for five long years. But then, some cryptic tweets. A new single, then two, then three. And finally, the light at the end of the tunnel – or should I say, the darkness?
Little Dark Age has come to us in a time when the album’s title couldn’t be any more apt. Named after the band’s reaction to the Trump presidency and crafted as a reaction to “evil taking over the world”, the record is 45 minutes of well-crafted, albeit left-field pop. The weird and the wonderful always abound in MGMT’s work, but this time, the two-minute cowbell-punctuated ditties and twelve-minute symphonies replete with kazoos have been replaced with woozy 80s synths and hooks so catchy that you’ll snag your shirt on them as soon as the first song starts playing. MGMT may have been the band’s self-titled album, but Little Dark Age is the record that fully encompasses the band’s true potential, marrying Oracular Spectacular’s glittering pop sensibilities with VanWyngarden and Goldwasser’s signature proclivity for esoteric sonic experimentation. The result is a record more accessible than the duo’s previous two albums, and ultimately, one that is infinitely easier to love.
“Impossible!” I hear you cry. “A psych-pop record? MGMT are sellouts now?!”
Samples of an overly enthusiastic TV workout coach pepper the bombastic synth introduction to album opener ‘She Works Out Too Much’. “The only reason we never worked out was he didn’t work out enough,” coos a saccharine-sweet female voice, dealing out what is both a smug display of childish wordplay and the undisputed pun of the year to the tune of a driving drumbeat and a ridiculously infectious retro hook. Little Dark Age only ramps it up from here – immediately following is none other than the record’s title track, a song that unarguably breaks new ground on the indie-psych front and pushes MGMT into electro-goth territory that proves surprisingly dark and tantalising. ‘One Thing Left To Try’ sees the band go full disco and emerge triumphant, while ‘Days That Got Away’ and third single ‘Hand It Over’ hark back to the gentle, shimmering psychedelia of their unjustly maligned second record, Congratulations. There is something on Little Dark Age for everyone who cares to lend an ear, whether you’re a fan of one, all, or none of their previous records.
The undisputed stars on the album are, however, the twin colossi that are ‘When You Die’ and ‘Me and Michael’ – two songs so different that they could serve as polar opposites on the spectrum of everything that MGMT have ever produced. But make no mistake. Each offering is so impressive that it almost justifies the rabid baying from critics for the band to go either fully experimental or fully pop – if this is what they can achieve on either end of the scale, it’s no wonder that everyone is fighting over which end they should be on. ‘Me and Michael’ is undoubtedly a pop masterpiece constructed out of the kitschiest bits of 80s music, armed with a power-ballad chorus capable of punching through even the most hardened pop-skeptics’ sensibilities. On the other hand, ‘When You Die’ sees MGMT show off the perfect blend of lyrical aggression and musical creativity, culminating in a track that somehow manages to simultaneously cheer you up and chill you to the bone. “Go fuck yourself,” VanWyngarden intones coldly, over the bright tones of an electronic erhu emulator. “You heard me right.” It’s a lyric we should all be glad for even in spite of its petulance. After years of meandering across genres, MGMT have finally met themselves in the middle; embracing their talents on both sides of the divide. For the first time, we are truly hearing them right.
“Impossible!” I hear you cry. “A psych-pop record? MGMT are sellouts now?!” Well, if selling out means taking the best parts of what they do and throwing them all into a glorious fluorescent triumph of a record, then yes, MGMT have truly sold out. May they live long and prosper for it.
Little Dark Age is released on 9 February, you can pre-order the album here.
Image: Sony Music