How do you solve a problem like MGMT? The duo entered musical consciousness a decade ago, with the release of Oracular Spectacular; one of the few 1million-selling albums that could forgivably be referred to as criminally underrated. Oracular Spectacular fused ’60s hippy-pop sensibilities, with ’80s synthesizers, all filtered through the halcyon kaleidoscope of youth, which resulted in – for want of better phrasing – a record of absolute bangers.
Becoming the accidental poster boys for a new generation of bohemians didn’t sit right with MGMT, however. The band, consisting of Andrew VanWyngarden & Ben Goldwasser, were never supposed to be propelled into stardom; having formed in college to be ironic, pretentious and satirical.
So how do you follow a debut record that consisted of ‘Kids’, ‘Time To Pretend’ and ‘Electric Feel’? And, more importantly, how do you live out your fantasies of being anti-mainstream, whilst racking up a million album sales and two Grammy nominations?
The answer is, you can’t.
This left MGMT kicking out against their pop sensibilities with sophomore album Congratulations in 2010 and a self-titled effort in 2013 – which were inaccessible and needlessly crammed with layers of effects, jolting melodies and an outright refusal to revisit the wistful pop sounds that captured the imagination of their 2008 audience.
Little Dark Age, however, has seen the duo come full circle and it appears as if Andrew and Ben have finally stopped running from their impeccable ability to write melodic, synth-y hooks, whilst simultaneously holding onto the macabre and puzzling narratives that keep them partitioned from the sugar pop audience that they fear.
The lead single from the album, ‘Little Dark Age’, is a haunting and self-aware track that, unlike the immediate singles of last decade, holds the listener in a state of tension for over four minutes, doubling vocals and perpetually holding delayed notes on the keyboard. This acts as the perfect gateway into the album; coupling melody with reflective assessment – albeit through the murky lenses of self-realisation, rather than the halcyon kaleidoscope that commanded the first album’s point of reference.
Secondary release from the record, ‘When You Die’, is possibly the least pop-friendly offering of the 10 tracks – which I assume was an intentional decision from the duo, forever trying to distance themselves from the trap of mainstream appeal.
The single still works, however, and is possibly the most telling song on Little Dark Age, finding unlikely singalong opportunities in refrains such as “Go fuck yourself!” And “I’m not that nice!”, which sound very much like VanWyngarden finally confronting his pop star image, before compromising with it throughout the rest of the album.
This takes us immediately into ‘Me and Michael’, which is just about as dream-pop a song as you are likely to find, with nostalgic harpsichord melodies ringing throughout and sentimental tones that would sound at home over the closing credits of a 1980s coming-of-age flick.
It is fair to say that Little Dark Age offers very few disappointments and rarely strays from the aesthetic of upbeat ’80s pop, consistently laced with dark or psychedelic lyrical content.
Throughout the lyrics of the album, MGMT express distress and disillusionment towards modern life, never more so than in ‘Time Spent Looking At My Phone’ (or TSPAMP).
This disillusionment could come as a by-product of begrudgingly accepting that they are what they are; which is a duo of fantastic pop writers, rather than the avant-garde satirists that they once set out to be.
As a listener, it is hard to not rejoice in the group’s revisiting of their more accessible roots, especially when they have maintained all of the charm and wonder that their hallucinogenic experiments have fruited.
This is manifested at it’s finest in the ninth track on the album; ‘When You’re Small’, which sounds childlike and introspective. Unlike much of MGMT’s catalogue, ‘When You’re Small’ could have been created in minutes, with honest and minimalist lyrics that avoid any complicated metaphor or otherworldly references, with VanWygaeden still longing for life away from the fringes of stardom, as he sings “when you’re small / you don’t have very far to fall.”
So why have MGMT finally given in to their natural pop sensibilities, to create Little Dark Age?
It could be because of a genuine threat of losing major label backing – with their previous two records combined selling around 10% of the amount that Oracular Spectacular shifted.
I like to think, however, that this record sees the duo coming of age. MGMT have finally come to terms with the notion of being a crowd-pleasing pop act, and have learnt how to fuse this burden with their unmistakable production and writing style. They have finished their stroppy feud with stardom and allowed themselves to enjoy making music again.
MGMT’s fourth album, Little Dark Age is available to purchase now.
Words by Matt Ganfield