I remember vividly the last time I covered MGMT.
Now most of you probably don’t – that was very early in my critic career on YouTube, before I even had a proper camera, and thus me taking a pretty lukewarm at best stance on a critical darling band got me a small but significant backlash… even if history seems to have proven me right on this.
Part of the problem is that I’ve never really been a huge MGMT fan: there were some great moments on Oracular Spectacular, Congratulations has only warmed on me in recent years and it’s probably underrated but I still wouldn’t call it great, and in contrast I’ve only soured on the self-titled record more and more. Part of it was the return of producer Dave Fridmann continuing to embrace his blown-out, more compressed sound that he worked to far greater effect with The Flaming Lips that same year on The Terror, but a larger part of it was the sense that MGMT were falling towards a bait & switch trope in psychedelia I’ve never really liked. I get the appeal in using that quasi-surreal gloss for something dark and twisted beneath it, but it’s like a lot of shock-horror, it doesn’t have the same replay value for me, especially when the tunes just didn’t coalesce. l said in that review that MGMT were continuing on a path to alienate their audiences, but the truth is that they just weren’t playing to their strengths: they had a great knack for hooks and the willingness to embrace weird textures and ideas, and when you compromise the former to indulge more of the latter… well, it doesn’t always help you.
I found it really interesting that five years later it seemed like MGMT had pulled a 180, teaming up with Patrick Wimberly of Chairlift and Ariel Pink – another guy who can struggle to hold the right balance between texture and phenomenal hooks – to make more of a synthpop release! And hell, while I like psychedelia, this sounded so much up my alley I really wanted to check it out before now!
So, what did MGMT deliver on Little Dark Age?
Alright, here’s the thing: I can make the credible argument that this is easily the most I’ve enjoyed a full MGMT record in years. It’s tight, the hooks are as strong as ever, there’s a ton of texture and personality, and while it could feel a little afield for more of the psychedelic-leaning fans, it shows the duo are just as adept in adapting this sound as any other. But note the word ‘adapting’ here, and this is where folks who aren’t in the know may miss the message – because this is not far removed at all from a modern Ariel Pink project, and he does deserve credit for pioneering this sound more than MGMT do. But on the flip side, it’s been a while since Ariel Pink has delivered a project as consistent as Little Dark Age, and that comes from MGMT more than anyone else.
And to illustrate that the best, I think we’re going to start with lyrics and themes this time around, and where so much of Ariel Pink’s work embraces a pretty bleak sense of nihilism – which definitely comes through in his cowriting on ‘When You Die’ – MGMT are surprisingly upbeat on this project, or at least looking in that direction, in contrast with the alienating tactics they took before. There are darker themes: the title track highlights how the poisonous rot of a dark secret doesn’t go away, and ‘TSLAMP (Time Spent Looking At My Phone)’ is exactly about what you’d think it’d be, but in both cases it’s more reflexive and self-critical than lecturing the youth about staring at their phones. Hell, there’s a greater sense of balance and moderation all over this project, taking a slightly more reasoned approach to confronting wild flings of negative emotionality, or at least a little more willing to call themselves out on their nonsense on songs like ‘She Works Out Too Much’ – sure, she might be obsessed with her image, but she’s doing it to make herself feel better, and having the female vocals directly counter MGMT on the hook highlighting how he could do better himself was a novel choice, especially with how she’s the one who ultimately ends it through the chintzy exercise video framing. Or take the confrontation of suicidal thoughts and fear on ‘One Thing Left To Try’, or even the surprising amount of poise it handles current politics on ‘Hand It Over’, basically saying you could have predicted the swing rightward after 2016, and yet there will be a sharp pivot back and it’s best those in power ‘hand it over’. Hell, ‘When You’re Small’ directly addresses the band’s history itself, as they consciously admit they tried to alienate their audience, ‘crave the ground’ again… but it’s a hell of a lot harder when you’re at that level to succeed, and even if they were enabled so they didn’t have to see consequences or know why at their peak, that’s still a flexibility and freedom that comes with success that shouldn’t be dismissed. And that reasoned rationality is a nice balance to the sillier tunes here like ‘James’ and ‘Me And Michael’, more about friendship and upbeat support than anything else!
Granted, that might be a tad difficult to ascertain if you’re not familiar with the instrumental palette on display, so let’s dig into the production. And here’s the thing: if you’re not familiar with the off-key gummy synths blasting up against the ascending bassline that opens the record, it can feel discordant and alienating, especially with those meaty post-chorus saxophone lines. But those of us familiar with Ariel Pink will recognize the familiarity, just with a higher gloss, fidelity and Dave Fridmann mixing the drums and percussion into more fizzy, compressed blocks, as he typically does. And let me make this clear, Fridmann’s smeared-over, blocky style doesn’t always click here, especially when the song falls apart in your hands like the buzzy synths that end the otherwise cheesy and chipper ‘Me And Michael’ with its gleaming melodic interplay, or that piano-accented minor breakdown on ‘One Thing Left To Try’, which kind of kills the momentum given the spacey synthesizers, much quicker tempo courtesy of the guitar and an overall terrific groove. And then there’s ‘Days That Got Away’, a borderline instrumental piece that meanders entirely too much with its gummy, warping chiptune and undercooked dreamy vibe. But when this record does get tighter, man it delivers! The title track is the immediate standout, tilting into a certain pseudo-gothic hollowness courtesy of the wiry, offkilter synth groove and a phenomenally catchy hook, but when you follow it with the weird, oddly jaunty guitar phrases both acoustic and electric on ‘When You Die’ especially with that vocal line, it becomes remarkably endearing for a song telling me to go fuck myself!
Follow it with the fat bass and Daft Punk-esque vocodors in the warped chiptune funk of ‘TSLAMP (Time Spent Looking At My Phone)’, the dreamy, borderline wistful synths, acoustic guitar and arranged instrumentation on ‘When You’re Small’, and the filmy layers and remarkably well-textured french horn interlude on ‘James’ and you wind up with a set of groove-heavy, remarkably sharp pop compositions. And a huge part of this needs to be chalked up to Andrew VanWyngarden, a singer I’ve never found all that impressive but his willingness to contort his tone from a rich baritone on ‘James’ to his slightly more manic and unstable midrange on the title track and ‘When We Die’ to a timbre not far removed from a girl-group singer on ‘One Thing Left To Try’, especially with that production… yeah, I’m on board, he won me over.
So in summary… look, it’s been years since I’ve actively praised MGMT for anything, and I don’t think I’ve ever been a serious fan, but Little Dark Age is the real damn deal and exactly the right sort of pivot for this group, flattering their pop sensibilities while bringing terrific melodies and a great sense of diversity in production to the forefront. It’s wildly colourful, the writing is sharp and noticeably more mature, and a shift in this direction opens up a ton of doors for the band going forward… even if you can tell they’re eagerly anticipating the end of their label deal after the next record so they can, as they themselves described, enter the ‘David Byrne’ stage of their career, which I’m not sure they could convincingly hold up. But that’ll come later: for now, this is an 8/10 and definitely a recommendation to anybody looking to get back onboard with MGMT. And for those of you like me who never really got on board the first time beyond ‘Electric Feel’ and ‘Kids’… yeah, it’s worth it.