By Blake Baxter (@bbax2)
It’s a familiar narrative, if you’re a music fan. The unknown band that comes out of nowhere, releases a string of hits, becomes a popular sensation and then spends the rest of their career trying to replicate their previous success. They thought that their moment would last forever, but it was nothing more than fifteen minutes of fame. A massive high followed by a violent and inevitable comedown, as they desperately try to stay on top of the world. But what if the band inherently rejected that narrative? What if the band never really wanted the fame in the first place?
In 2007, two college buddies from Middletown, Connecticut released their debut album, Oracular Spectacular under the moniker MGMT. The album was catchy, trippy and genre bending. Within a year, its most accessible, ergo commercial, songs, “Time to Pretend” and “Kids” were radio staples and Oracular Spectacular had become an international hit. By the time its third single, the disco-soaked sex jam “Electric Feel”, hit the airwaves, their electro dance pop sound was already starting to be imitated by other bands. The album was something of a game-changer. And, through their infectious choruses, silly, if ironic lyrics, and vibrant, over-the-top music videos, the band built quite the following. However, more fans than not were attracted to MGMT because of their irresistible singles, rather than the psychedelia bubbling under the surface of Oracular Spectacular.
The band, on the other hand, strove to be something other (more?) than an unstoppable pop anthem machine. It seems as though they could have been one if they so desired, but they deliberately chose a different path. There would be no chase for that high of nearly unanimous approval and popularity. MGMT didn’t want the fame anyway. After all, “Time to Pretend” was a satirical take on conforming to a rock star lifestyle. “We were fated to pretend,” singer Andrew Van Wyngarden sang, but with the release of Congratulations, the follow up to Oracular Spectacular, MGMT made it clear that they were not going to conform to anyone’s expectations but their own.
Congratulations more or less shunned the danceability of their debut, while fully embracing their psychedelic impulses. Which is not to say that the record is void of pop, it’s just a different kind of pop. Whereas the first record is a mix of the generally modern and the ‘70s, (and a tinge of the future) the second recalls the sound of numerous sixties bands. It is often reminiscent of the sunny harmonies of The Mamas and The Papas and The Beach Boys, as well as the psychedelic rock of The Grateful Dead. There are also overt homages to British rock icons of the seventies and eighties. But what’s sunny in Congratulations is often overshadowed by a sense of paranoia that is both frenetic and haunting. It is music that rings true for a band entirely overwhelmed with its unexpected fame. Overall, the album received mostly strong reviews, but much less fanfare than its predecessor.
Three years after the release of the single-less Congratulations, MGMT is back with a self-titled album that is even stranger. Those yearning for a refrain of the delightful synth pop of Oracular Spectacular will be disappointed because MGMT is a profoundly weird record. Instead of stepping away from the psychedelic sound of Congratulations, in MGMT the band latches onto it and digs even deeper. Songs on their previous albums were merely trippy but here, they are entire trips. The guitars that dominated the last album are often replaced with less common instruments like tambourines and shakers, as well as endless electronics and effects.
Up to this point, every MGMT album sounded like it was from or influenced by another time. Much of this album, though, sounds as if it is from another planet, which is fitting considering its first track is entitled “Alien Days”. However, it isn’t all that way. Yes, there are chunks that are so trance-y and experimental that they rival late-period Radiohead, but there are also songs, such as “Plenty of Girls in the Sea” and a cover of Faine Jane’s 1968 song “Introspection” that unmistakably feature glimmers of Paul McCartney. “Cool Song No. 2” specifically sounds like it might have been influenced by Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
The scraps of accessible pop scattered about here and there will not be enough to attract a very sizable audience, nor will they likely be enough to launch another hit single. But it is pretty clear that that was never MGMT’s intention. They seem to have no desire to make something as catchy and commercial as “Kids” again – or at least not at this point in their career. The fact that MGMT is not Oracular Spectacular is not necessarily a bad thing. MGMT has some spectacular moments in its own right – the eerie opening of “Alien Days”, the gleeful teardown of delusion in “Your Life is A Lie,” the entirety of “Introspection” – they are just in a more confounding, less vibrant shade. Overall, the album flirts with transcendence and just barely misses it.
MGMT the band may have never wanted fame, but MGMT the album proves that doesn’t mean they have any lack in ambition.
Blake Baxter is a native of Illinois and a 2013 graduate of Eureka College. He currently covers the Carolina Panthers for Football.com and previously covered college basketball for ESPN Louisville during the 2012-13 season. He has also written about sports, pop culture and politics for The College Fix, The Wine and Cheese Crowd and an assortment of newspapers. Blake works in the communication and marketing field for Technical Solutions & Services, but aspires to write full-time someday.