MGMT is the type of band you seriously want to hate. Instant massive success? Check. Songs named “Brian Eno”? Check. Paisley headbands? Hella’ check. If you were alive in 2007 and heard one of their monster singles from their unstoppable first album ringing out over the speakers of an Urban Outfitters, then you were probably hopeful. You could hate this band. “They’re blatantly stealing from Ween!” “They’re singing about heroin and models!” “Is it an electric feel or an electric eel?” Then there was the added ammo of the tidal wave of critical praise crashing down on shore from the Forks and the Gums and the Stones and the Spins. Some critics actually referred to these two musicians as “angel-headed”. They scrambled for different ways to describe “rubbery synths”. “Pink Floyd of the internet age” was bandied about a lot, and at least one article went so far as to use the words “urban” and “pastoral” together and think they could get away with it. And that name! MGMT. Seriously? Bands were anointing themselves with office buzz acronyms now?
It would have taken an actual listen to the Oracular Spectacular album to realize there was a little something else going on with the MGMT dudes, something just a bit strange and creepy. On some of the songs that were not massive indie disco hits, like “Weekend Wars” with its lyrics about makeshift bombs and scaring children off of lawns, a tripped-out panic was brewing. But of course you didn’t listen. Because you’re a snob and proud of it. And you most likely never looked up from your Kraut rock collection to notice that the angel heads put out a second record that took a complete left turn into English psych weirdness which yielded not one festival anthem. By the third album you most likely had forgotten they ever existed, like some over-exuberant kid brother of a friend you hadn’t seen in a decade. A half-baked and glazed-over stab at playing Skip Spence, only without the actual schizophrenia to back it up, the mainstream didn’t notice the record either.
And that was nearly five years ago.
If there is an Illuminati, then MGMT are most definitely members. How are they still on Columbia Records? Two face-plant flop records right in a row. Can they even headline festivals anymore? Most likely not, but yet here they come with a major label release and a record cover that looks like a UK Decay gig flyer. And they sound rejuvenated, less freaked about their early success, less stoned on heady nugz. Hooks come to the surface again, and they come out absolutely swinging on what turns out to be a gloriously strange thrill ride that stands out in stark contrast to the legions of meek bands in stretched-out sweaters doing 70s AM Gold impressions these days.
It takes a whole lot of DGAF to kick off your comeback record with a song as strange and fun as “She Works Out Too Much”. The key word here is “fun” because, with the exception of hip hop, musicians just aren’t allowed to be much fun during these dark times. Having a laugh is seen as an affront, especially in the playfully mean-spirited way MGMT is doing it here. Over a breezy, skewed pop bedrock they take aim at gym culture and online dating even though they know full well that a good portion of their audience are staunch supporters of both. This is slacker gold in an age where slacking just isn’t cool anymore, and a line such as “Nothing’s ever as good as when it never begins” would have done Bedhead or Dinosaur Jr. proud.
The title track is a dark goth banger meant to rattle the treble lines of even the most high-end audiophile speakers. MGMT has just never done anything like this before, but it’s executed with such savage precision you would think this was their main calling card. These boys like their goth with a dose of 80s coldwave, and this song would have been massive on the German dance floors of 1982. With its spellbinding urban pagan lyrics urging listeners to “come find us heading for the bridge, bring a stone” and its slowly unfolding earworm of a chorus, this is the type of song you hold off playing again since you don’t want to wear it out.
“When You Die” is a major leap forward for this band. An acoustic shuffle not unlike some of the tracks on the second half of Oracular, the music itself floats on sunshine daydream bliss. You may get too swept up in the Laurel Canyon groove to notice the lyrics. “I’m mean and I’m evil” states the narrator before getting down to a domestic strife chant of, “Go fuck yourself, you heard me right, don’t call me nice, again”. The chorus was seemingly constructed with dewy hopes that thousands of festival-goers would chant “go fuck yourself!” this summer, giving it that pipe dream edge true genius is often made of. Anyone who’s ever had a fight with their live-in partner will surely relate to the “Don’t you have somewhere to be at 7:30” question posed here. This is the sound of MGMT re-embracing the hooks of their first album, sprinkling in the weirdness of the follow ups like pixie dust, then blasting off for places they’ve never dared to tread.
And then there’s “TSLAMP”. Yes, this stands for Time Spent Looking At My Phone. And yes, it is an indictment of screen culture. Given that screen culture basically IS the world at the moment, the boys had to know they would be opening themselves up for abuse with such unmasked cultural criticism. In scanning the reviews on the other sites, this is the one track that keeps Little Dark Age from the Best New Music tags. They had to know that this would happen, which makes it all the more commendable that they chose to roll with it. “Catch me when the lights go down, signing in and signing out” has the feel of a Lou Reed heroin number, and this is probably what makes the song work. Instead of taking the easy route and accusing iPhone addicts of being somehow dumb or deluded or bogged down with technology, they are pointing out the addiction angle. Substitute the “phone” in this song with any drug and it would work just the same. And it doesn’t hurt that the slinky synth lines and remarkably phlanged guitar solo are some of the most tasty musical moments on a record packed with them.
You also have to hand it to MGMT for really swinging for the fences with songs like “Me and Michael”, “James”, and especially “One Thing Left To Try”. The unspoken Ween influence rings heavy on OTLTT, which sounds like a couple jokesters high on Nitrous taking an early period Madonna track and pushing it to its limits in a studio after hours. As a joke. But yet still kind of serious. Did they really think this teetering Godzilla could become a hit on the same level as “Kids”? Trying to figure it out is half the fun of this record. “James” is simply gorgeous. Free-floating on sustained mono synth lines with a chorus that comes around in circles to ambush the verses, this is the most heartfelt song on a record that otherwise seems rigged with acidic booby traps. And these traps are not always lyrical. On “Me and Michael” an otherwise innocent tale of friendship and loss is sabotaged by a caged drum break straight from a Phil Collins vs. Tommy Lee percussion battle, and you have to wonder if the “whoa whoa whoa” Robert Palmer backup vocals were added with a sinister snicker.
There’s some tripped-out, spacey deep cuts on here that allow The Management to flex their psych muscles a bit in the midst of their self-planted synth pop jungle. Instrumental “Days That Got Away” floats like low rolling fog punctuated by what sound like air horn blasts. You can see an all-instrumental album at some point in the future for this band. “When You’re Small” lays on the Floyd vibes nice and thick and contains some lyrics that may or may not address the band’s trajectory from big font festival contenders to failing to sell out Terminal 5.
A meticulously sequenced record, the defeated, closing sigh of “Hand It Over” wraps things up with a purposeful sigh. After 40 minutes spent swinging from the delirious rafters of warped pop bangers and fried dystopian psych, they sound exhausted here. Drained from their efforts. The comedown is on. “The deals we’ve made to shake things up, and the rights that they’ve abused, might just fuck us over, but the doors won’t shut, until there’s nothing left to lose.”
MGMT sure sounds like they have nothing left to lose on Little Dark Age, and it has allowed them to craft a thrilling kaleidoscope of an album that may just have stronger legs in the long run than their smash debut.
- Little Dark Age
- Hand It Over
- When You Die
- She Works Out Too Much