This week, the prodigal indie-pop duo MGMT released their first music in four years, “Little Dark Age.” The title track from the band’s upcoming fourth album (it still doesn’t have a release date), “Little Dark Age” is a sinewy, synth-driven ’80s goth-pop number that moves at a stealth but steady pace. It’s just hooky enough to welcome subsequent listens without threatening to wear out its welcome anytime soon, and ought to slot in comfortably in a variety of playlists. It is, in other words, a straightforward pop song, and utterly dissimilar to the strange, dense, and discursive music MGMT has previously put out in the 2010s.
Some writers have even likened the song to Oracular Spectacular, MGMT’s platinum-selling 2007 debut, one of the truly paradigm-shifting rock albums of the 21st century. Ten years ago, indie acts seemed to be on the verge of infiltrating mainstream pop music, just as so-called “alternative” bands had done in the early ’90s. And MGMT — which started as a jokey lark founded by two pranksterish college kids named Andrew VanWyngarden and Ben Goldwasser, who had actually broken up the group for several months before Columbia signed them in 2006 — seemed to have stumbled onto a million-dollar formula. Smash internet hits like “Kids” and “Time To Pretend” had the cachet of the blog-rock bands still bubbling up and capturing the music press’ attention in the late ’00s, but those songs were also incredibly canny pop tunes that sounded like sex, drugs, youth, and summer nights. MGMT was hip and marketable, and VanWyngarden and Goldwasser’s “party amid the ruins of late-capitalism” sensibility couldn’t have better timed at the start of the Obama years.
Oracular Spectacular spawned the retro-futurist lifestyle music that would soon become aural wallpaper in commercials, inside clothing boutiques, and at music festivals in the late ’00s and early ’10s, inspiring the semi-memorable likes of Foster The People, Passion Pit, Cults, and many more. While the strains of bloggy blue-eyed soul have since faded from pop, you can still hear traces of it from time to time, like Portugal. The Man’s recent hit “Feel It Still,” which resembles the falsetto-accented slinkiness of Oracular Spectacular‘s excellent standout “Electric Feel.”
“Little Dark Age” doesn’t entirely return to the hedonistic pop pleasures of MGMT’s debut, but it’s close enough to suggest a potential comeback narrative. VanWyngarden and Goldwasser seemed to hint that the new album is a conscious return to form in an interview this week with Apple Music’s Zane Lowe. “It feels good to make music that’s fun,” Goldwasser enthused.
In order to have a comeback, there must be something to come back from. And in the “conventional wisdom” version of MGMT’s story, that valley is represented by 2010’s Congratulations and 2013’s MGMT, two massive artistic curveballs that underperformed commercially and elicited mixed critical notices. And yet dismissing these records as failures to be transcended is misguided.
Congratulations, in particular, deserves to be a cult favorite treasured by lovers of chemical-addled, off-kilter pop. It’s an album bursting with ideas, sometimes to its own detriment, at least when it comes to producing hit songs. If repetition is the guiding principle of pop music, Congratulations is willfully OCD, refusing to focus on any single melodic brainstorm for long. Just compare “Kids,” which is anchored by a rudimentary keyboard hook that cycles endlessly for about five minutes, to the pivotal track on Congratulations, “Siberian Breaks,” a convoluted 12-minute suite that alludes to the Beach Boys’ Smile, Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here, Brian Eno’s Another Green World, Daft Punk’s Discovery, and countless B-movie sci-fi soundtracks. It’s practically an EP stuffed inside an LP, delivering five or six songs in the space of a single track. Even a relatively compact tune like “Flash Delirium” moves in a dozen different directions, referencing Krautrock, ’60s bubblegum, and sleazy disco-rock, an amalgam that recalls one of MGMT’s former tour mates, Of Montreal, whose witty and wide-ranging 2007 LP Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer? is an obvious influence on Congratulations.