Little Dark Age
More pop, less weird, but still chasing psychedelic highs
MGMT may never make an album as brilliantly bonkers as 2010's Congratulations. Considered by many to be a middle finger to everyone who swooned over smash singles "Time to Pretend", "Electric Feel" and "Kids" from their hugely successful debut album, Oracular Spectacular, the record was actually a distillation of duo Andrew VanWyngarden and Ben Goldwasser's sonic obsessions. The fusion of druggy psych and electro-pop may have hit the Coachella scene like a mainstream bong rip back in 2007, but on the whole, Oracular Spectacular was a much weirder record than those singles suggested. Therefore, Congratulations merely doubled down on that strangeness; coming off like a wonky cross between Television Personalities and Syd Barrett. 2013's MGMT followed; another left-field swing into proggy noodling which once again denied fans the obvious hooks and melodies they craved.
The generational optimism MGMT helped usher in became a curse for the band, since they were never really interested in making mass appeal pop music to begin with. The two albums which followed Oracular Spectacular weren't simply reactionary moves, but exist as a natural pivot into the off-kilter soundscapes dominating the rest of that record. MGMT's resilience in making the kind of music they want, regardless of expectations, is noteworthy in parsing their latest release, Little Dark Age. Some will see it as a "return to form" after nearly a decade of self-indulgent excess, while others will criticize the duo for conceding to a slicker pop sound. The truth is somewhere in between, as Little Dark Age relishes the chance for a more focused set of songs which bridge the gap between accessible 80's synth-pop and acid-fueled psychedelia.
At its heart, MGMT's latest is about thirtysomething malaise; the absurdity of being young enough to have some level of aspiration, but old enough to realize that it's probably all for naught. If Oracular Spectacular was a free-love ode to living in the moment, then Little Dark Age is the attempt to reconcile wasted youth with the uncomfortable vanities of contemporary life. Opener "She Works Out Too Much" is a telling example of this theme; a satiric riff on keeping up with a girlfriend who is active both in the physical sense as well as the social media sense. With its self-aware instructional audio cues and chintzy keyboard flourishes, the tune sets up an ironic distance that comes and goes throughout the record. There's goth darkwave with an infectious hook ("Little Dark Age"), anthemic power-pop ("Me and Michael"), and mocking tales of self-defeat and suicide ("When You Die"), but mostly, MGMT tap into the idea of inverting pop tropes in order to experiment with their now patented sound. At their worst, they fall back on flat textures, like the dub-influenced “TSLAMP" about the tech phobia of spending too much time on your phone, or the psych-folk ditty "When You're Small", which plays more like a parody of stoner balladry than a homage. At their best, they utilize a mishmash of vintage keyboards, jazzy interludes, and stereo-panning soundscapes that rarely overwhelm some of the more focused songwriting of their career.
Elsewhere, MGMT lean into the pop pastiche of artists like Ariel Pink (who gets a vocal harmony on "When We Die") and John Maus (especially the retro synth work on "One Thing Left To Try"). Though VanWyngarden and Goldwasser certainly know their way around a gorgeous melody, they don't quite have the self-reflexive charm of someone like Pink; a guy whose spent decades reappropriating past sounds and aesthetics into something approaching originality.
Nonetheless, throughout Little Dark Age, MGMT strike a rather elegant balance of sugary pop and moody introspection; getting a few hooks out of their system while basking in the paranoia and fear of burning out in your mid-30's. There's a telling line during "When You Die" which speaks to this idea of using shimmering pop in order to hint at darker impulses, as VanWyngarden sings Go fuck yourself… don’t call me nice again. It sounds eerily like someone who made his name on empowering zeitgeist-chasing anthems now doubling down on the sham of it all, and maybe that's just the kind of sentiment, for better or worse, we need in 2018.