It has been just under five years since we’ve heard anything from MGMT, the psychedelic pop powerhouse hailing from Connecticut. The group first made waves back in the mid-2000s, with their 2007 debut album “Oracular Spectacular” riding off the massive success of its singles: “Time To Pretend,” “Electric Feel” and “Kids.”
More interested in left-field electronics, songwriters Andrew VanWyngarden and Ben Goldwasser penned these pop tunes to take the piss out of the genre, never having any ambition as a pop group. Nonetheless, these songs were what led MGMT to gain their audience, causing expectations and reality to differ greatly.
The group’s next two records, 2010’s “Congratulations” and 2013’s “MGMT,” proved far less catchy and immediate than those songs from 2007, and much less pleasing to their fanbase. What the group has never faltered in, however, is quality, and on their first record, “Little Dark Age,” in around five years, the group revisits the immediacy of their first, while presenting tunes of an entirely new sonic palette.
MGMT initially presented a handful of lead singles off the album, the first of which being the title track, “Little Dark Age.” The song features a very funky groove, warbly, spooky synths and an incredibly appealing square wave bassline. The bass has an irresistible, sawtooth-type texture to it that is absent from much of the pop of today, which is riddled with 80’s nostalgia. With this track, the band throws the sophisticated psychedelia of their first records out the window, and welcomes in the sound of 80’s dark wave and synth pop; they manage to present it in an overtly spooky and ethereal way, possibly taking aesthetic inspiration from The Cramps, or perhaps some of the “New Romantics” acts of the time, like Talk Talk. This record is not without its curve balls, though.
“When You Die” is a total hodge-podge of MGMT tropes. The song has a general sunshine pop feel to it, driven by an acoustic guitar lick, harkening back to the guitar-driven material off of “Congratulations.” The synths at the forefront of the track have a strange, Eastern quality to them, and are reminiscent of some of Cocteau Twins’ earliest work. The gradual build up following the first verse reminds listeners of the youthful electronica that made a name for the band. The pleasant melody clashes with the unsettling lyrics, addressing a possible friend or lover, the subject warning them that he is not so nice and that he will rip their heart out. On paper, the track should not work as well as it does, which stands as a testament to the group’s ever-growing talent.
“She Works Out Too Much” is a quirky song, featuring the aforementioned square bass, as well as several descending, fluttering synth tones. The song’s upbeat feel perfectly compliments the female vocal samples, written to emulate an 80’s exercise video on VHS. The overall theme of the song could possibly allude to the band’s underlying wishes; they want so badly to be the artful type, having no desire to involve themselves with athletics or anyone who actively pursues physical exertion. “Me and Michael” feels like a long lost Tears For Fears cut, with perhaps the sweetest melody of the entire album appearing in the chorus. The band introduces a wealth of new synth textures on this track, as well as several interesting vocal lines and effects.
“One Thing Left To Try” proves very satisfying, but polarizing at first. The synths are total John Carpenter worship, yet the song plays much like a Madonna song, which is only amplified by the female vocals. The band does justice to their influences on this track, and with this distinct combination of influences as well as the mood of the track, this may just be my favorite song on the album. “Days That Got Away” moves into the realm of 808 drum patterns and more ambient synth lines: the kind that transport you to a distant land, a platinum beach, maybe even interstellar space travel. The song “James” fails to deliver on the catchy melodies of the previously mentioned tracks, but the spooky vibe remains. The electric keyboard in the foreground sounds great against the ambiance of the fuzzy synths underneath. These two tracks are definitely the slow burners of the bunch. Additionally, I don’t know who James is, but he must be a pretty chill dude.
Overall, I found this record to be MGMT’s most consistently enjoyable project to date. The album did not present a single dud or throwaway, and each track toys around with different ideas from the band’s wide range of schemes and influences, whether they be of past work or completely new. This record mixes experimental electronics with pop immediacy expertly, and shows the band capitalizing on the recent trend of 80’s nostalgia, albeit with their own spooky, B-movie horror presence. In the little dark age that the world currently faces, MGMT provide a forward and backward-thinking escape into synth pop madness.
Gabe Sagherian is a student majoring in communication studies. ✉ GS889554@wcupa.edu.