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.
Anyone who had paid attention to the songs around the hits on Oracular Spectacular would’ve been better prepared for Congratulations. In the popular consciousness, MGMT was known as a druggy electro-pop band, but in reality, MGMT was an Elephant 6 group on a major-label budget. Congratulations teased out this side of the band and pushed it to the forefront, lavishing attention on countless tiny, geeky details at the expense of the big picture. It’s a record that treats verses like choruses and choruses like bong rips — which crippled Congratulations in the short-term but makes it a natural for retrospective appreciation. It’s an album designed to be pored over.
At the time, Congratulations was sometimes classified as a “success freakout” album in the mold of Nirvana’s In Utero or Radiohead’s Kid A, an anti-commercial raspberry blown in the direction of a huge new fanbase that MGMT didn’t expect and seemed ambivalent about servicing. This impression was created partly by the band themselves, who on stage performed the hits from Oracular Spectacular in perfunctory fashion. I saw MGMT on the Congratulations tour, and what I remember is how bored the audience seemed for the first 90 minutes, until VanWyngarden and Goldwasser finally relented and performed “Kids” during the encore. The crowd exploded, even if this version of “Kids” was unenthusiastic karaoke sung halfheartedly to a canned backing track. (The opener for the show, Tame Impala, soon assumed MGMT’s mantle as the world’s biggest psych-pop band by striking an easier balance between psych and pop.)
In interviews, VanWyngarden and Goldwasser related the album’s kinda-bonkers origin story, which began in 2009 when they decamped to Malibu and tried in vain to write more hits. “We would do a hundred takes of one keyboard part — it got stressful,” VanWyndgarden told Pitchfork in 2013. The guys eventually loosened up after VanWyngarden learned to surf, and the band started livening up the sessions by occasionally tripping on mushrooms. Both of these experiences informed the record: “Siberian Breaks” was a song about “surfing in the Arctic Circle near Russia,” VanWyndgarden maintained, who added in a Spin interview that the jittery opening track “It’s Working” was about “surfing on ecstasy.”
Surfing and drugs — this theme carried over to the colorful, cartoon-y cover art, which depicts some sort of critter with multiple faces catching a wave that is shaped like another sort of critter, against a purple and blue checkered backdrop. The iconography communicated something essential about the spirit of Congratulations that separated it from the sterner likes of In Utero and Kid A. Whereas those albums are self-consciously serious, even angry records that rail against the emptiness of fame and the dehumanizing effects of technology, Congratulations is whimsical and playful, and concerned more with exploring cool sounds than exploring grand themes.
In the realms of “success freakout” records, the true antecedent of Congratulations is the 1973 psych-pop classic A Wizard, A True Star, which Todd Rundgren made as a reaction to the success of the deathless AM pop staples “Hello It’s Me” and “I Saw The Light” from 1972’s Something/Anything. Like Rundgren, VanWyndgarden and Goldwasser were interested in deconstructing pop songs and putting them back together in the wrong order. The result is music that is highly melodic without being catchy, another factor that has helped Congratulations age well.
In that memorable 2013 Pitchfork profile, writer Larry Fitzmaurice observed that in spite of Congratulations‘ relatively poor commercial performance — it debuted at No. 2 on the album chart, but it inevitably wound up selling a fraction of Oracular Spectacular — MGMT was still capable of selling out 10,000-seat arenas several years later. This was largely due to a predominantly teenaged audience that still loved Oracular Spectacular and aped VanWyndgarden and Goldwasser’s bandana-heavy tribal look from the album cover. Some fans claimed they hadn’t even heard Congratulations. “If VanWyngarden and Goldwasser continue following their most willfully weird tendencies,” Fitzmaurice observed, “Their greatest challenge ahead could be retaining an audience whose enthusiasm is most strongly connected to a version of the band that no longer exists.”
But in 2013, VanWyngarden and Goldwasser hardly seemed concerned with alienating their fans. In fact, they doubled down on weirdness with MGMT, a record that actually was the impenetrable, antipop provocation that some erroneously claimed Congratulations was. If you go into Congratulations expecting an Elephant 6 record, rather than a collection of “Kids” and “Electric Feel” rip-offs, it’s easy to understand and enjoy. MGMT, however, is much woolier, submerging VanWyngarden and Goldwasser’s usual melodic sunniness in loads of monotonous drum machines, stuttering synths, and dark morning-after vibes. It’s ambient music for the scared and paranoid, a soundtrack for staring in the mirror at 5 AM after tripping all night. Unsurprisingly, MGMT all but short-circuited the band’s commercial standing.
Part of what I love about Congratulations and MGMT is how they now seem like principled anomalies in an era of unquestioned fan service. When was the last time a successful mainstream band or artist intentionally put out music that the majority of the public was all but guaranteed to misunderstand or downright despise? The economics of a shrinking music industry — which conspire against most rock bands getting the required exposure to have an Oracular Spectacular-level breakthrough in the first place — have locked pop music into an increasingly predictable pattern of soundalike, cookie-cutter hits that spawn more soundalike, cookie-cutter hits. It’s a rigged system that conspires against, among other things, strange songs about surfing on acid.
At heart, MGMT remains a pop group. “We don’t want to be associated with concept albums and art rock or any of that, it’s bullshit to us,” Goldwasser told Rolling Stone during the press cycle for Congratulations. “I think people have this attitude that something’s either pop or it’s pretentious art, or it’s mainstream or it’s indie, there’s no middle ground, and I think we’re trying to go somewhere in between that.” Maybe MGMT can finally stake out that middle ground between strangeness and accessibility on its next record. Recapturing the audience that loved Oracular Spectacular shouldn’t require putting an end to surfing in more adventurous waters.