You can’t have it both ways, though that hasn’t stopped MGMT from spending the better part of five years trying.
On the one hand, the psych-pop golden children, exalted with a Gold-selling debut and several Grammy nods to their name, are cruising along on a Columbia deal that’s apparently cushy enough to let them live out their recording fantasies for a year in Dave Fridmann’s upstate New York den. On the other, after a polarizing sophomore LP, main players Andrew VanWyngarden and Ben Goldwasser are as committed as ever to eviscerating the simmering qualities that made Oracular Spectacular a left-field success in the first place. Nor have they been shy about it. “We’re not trying to make music that everyone understands the first time they hear it,” the band told Rolling Stone while the record was in progress. “We didn’t make a single compromise,” they confirmed to NME after the fact.
Here, Congratulations’ prog-minded fantasies give way to the deliriously damaged psych-pop tapestries MGMT can finally afford to orchestrate. The tenacity of it all is admirable. But the result, a self-titled rebirth following a three-and-a-half-year hiatus, is a bit of a mess. Still, it’s a thrillingly inventive and uncompromisingly colorful mess, and isn’t that the best kind of mess?
When it works best, it’s buoyed by a madcap sing-songy sensibility, like the opening child-voiced refrain that swells into harp flutters, laser bursts, and, eventually, the goofily-intoned chorus of “Alien Days”. Even better is “Plenty of Girls in the Sea”, a three-minute outburst of surrealistic visions (“There’s plenty of girls in the sea / And plenty of clowns in the village”) and squelching synths that’s enough to challenge my moratorium on the phrase “acid-drenched.” (Somewhere in Oklahoma, Wayne Coyne is kicking himself that he didn’t write this one first.) There’s a similarly insular paranoia that fuels the group’s dryly psychedelic take on Faine Jade’s “Introspection” and an equally compelling sense of mania that powers the excellent, surging “Mystery Disease”.
But if you’ve read Pitchfork’s recent cover story on the group, MGMT’s shortcomings feel plainly predictable: the group’s burgeoning interest in sound design and house music can be tuneless at best and self-sabotaging at worst. Here’s Larry Fitzmaurice capturing one recording anecdote:
At the risk of being a person who doesn’t appreciate crazy synth noises,” [Goldwasster] starts, before suggesting that focusing on the blaring beat might not be the best way to go about writing a proper song. The mood turns tense. VanWyngarden’s face looks confused, slightly wounded. “I don’t want to add stuff that just makes it sound more like techno music,” Goldwasser says, claiming that he’d rather “jam on a guitar” and focus “less on sound design and more on playing something.” […] When he’s gone, VanWyngarden turns to the console and blasts the techno track again…
The ensuing cut, “Astro-Mancy”, is easily the album’s foulest moment, a five-minute garble of jittery drum programming and fetid synth textures that amounts to just the sort of Kid A tribute MGMT can’t manage; “A Good Sadness”, which precedes it, is nearly as cluttered and just as directionless. Much like Yeasayer’s Fragrant World — a recent third act from an indie act in a strikingly similar headspace — MGMT is occasionally befouled by a preoccupation with sound design that either outstrips or obscures its songwriting chops.
“Cool Song No. 2” is the clearest example — its stirring melody never gets a chance to breathe until one brief respite at the end, when the band finally sets aside its clanging, burping bag of tricks in favor of a rumbling piano. The duo’s obsession with pure, sonic layering only really triumphs on the closer, “An Orphan of Fortune”, perhaps because its sense of climax gives it direction, or maybe by dint of its sheer sinister-ness.
“At this point in our careers, we can’t write a pop song,” VanWyngarden tells Fitzmaurice in the Pitchfork profile. It’s more of a boast than an apology, I think, but it’s a baffling one, because — well, what’s “Alien Days”, then? What the hell does he think “Plenty of Girls in the Sea” is? That tidily resolving vocal refrain, those Beach Boys-y falsetto wails? Tucked beneath what sounds like an army of vomiting Martians, that’s a pop song, man! You wrote it! It’s nothing to be ashamed of.
But that rather encapsulates the self-consciousness that’s at the center of MGMT — a sense that the group’s crossover success was neither deserved nor desired and any track that seems remotely to match that promise must be duly atoned for with an “Astro-Mancy” or three. Given the story behind that track’s genesis, it’s no wonder it all feels a bit tortured and overthought. It’s not that MGMT isn’t capable of shoving their pop smarts in headier territory.
Once, when they were just an EP and Of Montreal support slot away from scraggly college kids covering “This Must Be the Place” in a courtyard, they did so seemingly without trying. Much of this record succeeds, but is it any surprise it’s been drained of the freewheeling wonder?
“Plenty of Girls”, ironically, seems to address that struggle: “The surgeon performs precise little cuts / But he’s never perfect / He’s thinking too much,” VanWyngarden sings. But it’s hard to hear underneath the Martian squalls, and anyway, if you asked him about it, he’d probably tell you it’s nonsense.