How MGMT Overcame Writer’s Block, Self-Doubt, And Donald Trump To Make ‘Little Dark Age’

Brad Elterman

“I’m going to die,” Andrew VanWyngarden croaks into the microphone. Actually, the MGMT frontman probably just needs a bowl of chicken soup, a sofa to crash on, and some Breaking Bad on Netflix. But for now, VanWyngarden is stuck suffering with a wicked cold inside of a Brooklyn rehearsal space, where he and longtime musical partner Ben Goldwasser are running through songs with their touring band from the forthcoming Little Dark Age, MGMT’s first album in four years, due February 9.

It’s mid-January, about a month before the album is going to be released, and VanWyngarden and Goldwasser have reunited for two weeks in preparation for a tour and the general grind of being part of an active band again. A lot is at stake for MGMT at the moment. Ever since the foreboding, catchy, ’80s goth-tinged title track was released as the record’s first single — in the chorus, VanWyngarden warns, “just know that if you hide / it doesn’t go away” — a “comeback” narrative has coalesced around Little Dark Age.

The buzz suggests that MGMT is back to making insistent pop in the vein of 2007’s Oracular Spectacular, the platinum-selling debut highlighted by a trio of irresistible hipster-dude party favorites — “Time To Pretend,” “Kids,” and “Electric Feel” — that have accumulated close to a half-billion streams combined on Spotify. After that, the narrative insists, MGMT went off the deep end into psych-rock self-indulgence. A recent Rolling Stone preview of Little Dark Age mentions 2010’s Congratulations and 2013’s MGMT just once, and only in order to dismiss them as “disappointing experimental albums” that “alienated fans, critics and even their record label.”

The perception that Little Dark Age presents a chastened MGMT — a duo that has out of necessity returned to pop after a long, drug-fueled wilderness period — will no doubt be emboldened once the public hears the song the label is most excited about, “Me and Michael.” Even more than the title track, “Me and Michael” finds VanWyngarden and Goldwasser back in the “triumphant pop anthem” business, riding a sultry bassline to the sort of creamy, shamelessly huge chorus that is normally associated with the nostalgic synth-pop confections of M83 or even Carly Rae Jepsen.

Of course, the stubbornly contrarian members of MGMT — now both in their mid-30s, and a long way from the makeup-smeared Lord Of The Flies kids on the cover of Oracular Spectacular — unsurprisingly take issue with this reductive read on their fourth album. For starters, if you dig past the most immediate bangers (which also include another early single, “When You Die,” a collaboration with polarizing psych-pop weirdo Ariel Pink) strangeness abounds on Little Dark Age.

While Goldwasser claims that he hasn’t taken psychedelics since the sessions for the self-titled album, VanWyngarden still imbibes when he’s writing lyrics. Two drug-influenced songs made it on the record’s darker, more effed-up side two — “James,” an off-kilter pop-soul tribute to long-time tour guitarist James Richardson that sounds like Sly Stone’s There’s A Riot Goin’ On as performed by Ween; and “Hand It Over,” a Trump-inspired dirge that to VanWyngarden’s frazzled mind sounded like Al Green when he wrote it.