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Photo: Jonah Freeman / Grandstand Media

MGMT Love You to Death on ‘Loss of Life’

MGMT’s Loss of Life culminates with a run of songs about sleep, love, and death so deeply felt that it doesn’t matter if they are still joking on some level.

Loss of Life
Mom + Pop
23 February 2024

In 2010, onetime tourmates MGMT and Yeasayer released albums that referenced and challenged strands of pop music that they viewed from their own peculiar angles. Yeasayer pulled a “Range Life” and playfully rebutted MGMT in the lyrics to Odd Blood‘s “The Children”, the most memorable song in Yeasayer’s catalog. For their part, MGMT released Congratulations, the last great major-label psychedelic rock album. There was no downside.

Yeasayer are gone, but MGMT remain, releasing albums at a pace that allows the band’s songs to soundtrack sometimes unforeseen technological/social contexts. TikTok had its way with 2018’s “Little Dark Age”, rocketing the song to something like ubiquity (depending on one’s online haunts) even as the group moved towards its independent label phase. But freer does not mean weirder in this case. On their new album, Loss of Life, MGMT dispense with the contrasts and bracing sonic choices that made Congratulations and the self-titled 2013 release such essential albums. Though Loss of Life is more reserved, on the whole, the conspicuously backloaded record culminates with a run of songs about sleep, love, and death so deeply felt that it doesn’t matter if MGMT are still joking on some level.

The three singles from Loss of Life are earworms, expertly selected for release before the album in a way that promotes its catchiest material and conceals the depths of the back half, which is most effective as a suite of songs. The first two singles, “Mother Nature” and “Bubblegum Dog”, mine the structure and delivery of many 1990s alternative rock acts. Tom Scharpling and Julia Vickerman’s music video for “Bubblegum Dog” makes this association directly, porting the good sports of MGMT (Ben Goldwasser and Andrew VanWyngarden) into music video scenarios from that era.

“Nothing to Declare” is the most delicate of the three singles, an acoustic folk number that closes out Loss of Life‘s first half. Its musical heritage precedes 1990s rock, though the electronic flourishes (by Daniel Lopatin, who plays on more than half of the record) and the pulse of the drums modernize the development of the orchestral folk elements from classic songs like Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Dangling Conversation”.

Patrick Wimberly produced the LP with MGMT, though Dave Fridmann is again involved, this time for “production and engineering”. Fridmann’s signature sounds are largely subdued in a way that avoids creating too direct a comparison with his own legacy-securing work of the 1990s and early 2000s. MGMT, the self-titled 2013 album, showcased both production modes, with the single “Alien Days” delivering a dose of the drum recording/mixing Fridmann utilized in his work with the Flaming Lips and the Delgados, among others. Regarding possible reference albums, Ween‘s White Pepper (2000) seems to provide a template for several songs on Loss of Life. The parallels might be unintentional, but they are also striking, particularly in the album’s second half.

“Nothing Changes” begins the outstanding back half of Loss of Life. In context, the title is a saying attributed to the gods, which introduces the possibility of a Sisyphean reading of the lyrics. A later reference to “Sisyphean daily life” pays off this suspected reading. But the dynamism of the song, including a French horn solo, contrasts with the predictable, unrewarding structure of the life of Sisyphus. “Phradie’s Song” is a lullaby that verges on sleep music. In this lullaby, sleep, love, and death/rebirth conjoin. Within the MGMT discography, “Phradie’s Song” could be seen as a response to the “permanent night” of “When You Die” from Little Dark Age and another way of working through the same thanatological position of “I Love You Too, Death” from MGMT.

Loss of Life‘s absolute highlight is the title song, distributed across two tracks to frame the whole. That framing ensures the melody will be familiar to a first-time listener when the reprise occurs at the album’s end. “Loss of Life” complicates the relationship between sleep, death, waking, and life that occurs in other songs (and in some modernist literature). “Loss of Life” clarifies that the parallels are not so exact and that sometimes, feeling that life is ending is only a matter of perspective. In every way, “Loss of Life” is the song most redolent of the psychedelic symphonies Fridmann and MGMT have created in the past—a madeleine de Proust that brings their past glories rushing back.

RATING 7 / 10

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