“I hope I die before I get sold,” quips MGMT towards the end of Congratulations. It’s a clever one-liner, belied more than a little by the band’s gold-certified, Grammy-recognized stature. That it comes during the heavily anticipated follow-up to a wildly successful debut feels bitingly sarcastic. That it comes halfway through “Siberian Breaks”, however—Congratulations’ prog-inflected, marathon-length centerpiece—seems eerily appropriate. The song is the logical culmination of the album’s defiantly anti-commercial tendencies; embodied here, in these fiercely psychedelic 12 minutes and 10 seconds, is its staunch refusal to cater to fan expectations what MGMT is, was, or should be.
Much clearer, then, is the firm expression of what the band won’t be, starting now: a singles act. Like Pearl Jam in 1993—reeling from both the expectation and disillusionment wrought by a smash debut—MGMT has presented its sophomore effort as an explicit attempt to grapple with, or perhaps even question, its massive success. “It’s us trying to deal with all the craziness that’s been going on since our last album took off,” explained VanWyngarden. “Sometimes it just doesn’t feel natural.”
Pearl Jam chose not to release any music videos from Vs. MGMT insist now that Congratulations won’t yield any singles. (Yes, “Flash Delirium” was made available in March as a free download; no, that doesn’t make it a single.) It’s not so drastic a decision when you hear the album. There’s nothing here approaching the radio accessibility and synth-driven immediacy of a “Kids” or “Time to Pretend”. Nor, I think, will there even be a dark horse hit in the vein of Oracular’s transcendent, disco-tinged “Electric Feel”. Gone entirely is the self-conscious divide that detached Oracular Spectacular’s hit-laden first half from its more sprawling, spacey latter half. Congratulations flows like an album in the classic sense of the term, and Goldwasser seems sincere in his plea that listeners don’t “just figure out what are the best three tracks, download those, and not listen to the rest of it.”
And so, in the absence of Oracular’s pulsing, dance-ready synth-pop, Congratulations takes its cues from the cosmic-charged psychedelia of that album’s latter half. With half of Spacemen 3 behind the production board, this should come as no surprise. Pete Kember’s production manifests itself in far unsubtle ways—in dense sheets of Panda Bear-style reverb, in thick organ flourishes and flute solos, in the detuned piano arpeggios that close out the title track. “I Found a Whistle” seems most directly culled from the Spacemen 3 ilk. Awash in swirling organ fades and acoustic guitars, the track feels like a weary “Pieces of What”-meets-Playing With Fire hybrid that reveals itself on repeated listens as one of Congratulations’ most rewarding moments. Elsewhere, Kember’s influence seeps subtly into the album’s terse, frenetic punk tributes to Television Personalities’ Dan Treacy and Brian Eno, both songs among its most immediate, lighthearted moments.
The album’s whirlpool psychedelia may seem a logical progression, but its decidedly retro tinge adds a striking counterpart. “It’s Working”, for example, blasts open the album with frantic surf-rock flourishes and thinly veiled drug imagery (“Turn the noise on / I’d like to feed my poison”); then, somewhere along the way, appears the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby” drum loop, only to segue into a triumphant doo-wop refrain. It may be the first time a variation on the ‘50s progression (see: “Stand By Me”, “He’s Sure the Boy I Love”) appears on an MGMT record, but it’s not the last. The excellent “Someone’s Missing” treads similar ‘50s chordal territory, merging falsetto-tinged disco balladry with Kember’s organ soundscapes—that is, until the echo gives way into a euphoric Motown groove lifted from the “I Want You Back” bassline.
If that track’s Jackson 5 appropriation feels eerily natural, then “Flash Delirium”—a breathless pastiche of doo-wop, ‘50s rock ’n’ roll, flute solo, and a punk climax—fails in part because it sounds so forced. With its clumsy transitions and hollow attempt at social commentary (“Stab your Facebook / Sell sell sell”), the song’s grasp of self-conscious, White Album-style irony (“Happiness Is a Warm Gun” seems the clearest reference point) feels shallow and stilted—like second-rate Of Montreal. Thankfully, “Siberian Breaks”’ huge length affords it far more time to develop and breathe, its Floydian prog influence obvious but never overpowering (or drenched in smug ironic detachment à la “Flash Delirium”).
“Out with a whimper / It’s not a blaze of glory,” goes a line in the title track, and it’s all too true. The album’s closing moments far fail to measure up with the inventive stylistic pastiches that come before. With its casio drums, muddled piano build-up, and novelty screams, “Lady Dada’s Nightmare” is little more than “Great Gig in the Sky”-lite, while the title track concludes on a thoroughly forgettable note. The lyrics seem vaguely to deal with (surprise!) fame and disillusionment: “All is well if the ticket sells.” And then: “But all is lost if it’s never heard.” Despite its flagrantly anti-commercial tendencies, Congratulations will, without question, be heard, and by millions. But as what—an all-too-familiar expression of post-fame disillusionment? a fearless psych-rock masterpiece? a shape-shifting tribute, both lyrically and musically, to retro influences?—remains unclear.
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