Album Review: MGMT, “MGMT”

(Originally written for Reverb1)

MGMT‘s post-”Oracular Spectacular” career has in many ways been like watching a melodrama unfold. First there was the Spin article that featured frontman Andrew VanWyngaarden getting 86′d from a homeless shelter; then the alleged piss bottle hurled at them during their set at Glastonbury. Every time they didn’t play hit single “Kids,” it somehow merited mention in some music blog. Still kids themselves, VanWyngaarden and Ben Goldwasser were understandably bewildered in the wake of their 900,000 copy-selling debut.

Their follow-up album “Congratulations” only served turn the screw harder on the duo. With no discernible singles, it was several notches too left-field for many in their established fan base, who’d signed up for indie-club songs like “Electric Feel” and “Kids”—not the Monster Mash rock of “Song For Dan Treacy.”

While “Congratulations” definitely wasn’t a pop album, compared to the duo’s new self-titled release, it’s downright conventional. The doors of perception are wide open on their third LP, “MGMT,” an overstuffed electro-psych kaleidoscope that’s as fascinating as it is overwhelming.

The songs on “MGMT” rarely stay in one place, flowing inside themselves and following rabbits holes unexpectedly. “Alien Days,” the album’s best-bet single (alternatively the Faine Jade-cover, “Introspection”), starts with empowering rock drum rhythm and bright guitar chords that lull you into a false sense of security before devolving into unease, revealing a manic bongo solo in the final third. The wriggling synth on “Mystery Disease” has a mind of its own, occasionally faltering and following an independent phrase for a few bars, then receding below angelic strings and a bouncing drum sequence. It might sounds ill fated, but it’s fun to pick these little sub-plots out within the songs, which usually work within the album’s non-existent parameters.

This sound packing is at times designed to overwhelm, and it will before too long. “Your Life Is A Lie” is in itself swamping (and especially so when digesting “MGMT” as a whole), boxing your ears with an unrelenting cowbell and throwing three distinct rhythms at you at one point. But in an otherwise weighty record, it’s the album’s goofiest track, expounding on psychedelic revelations with the rhetoric of a pre-K teacher: “Count your friends / on your hands / now look again / they’re not your friends.” Afterward, “A Good Sadness” builds for a minute before laying into a mechanized NIN rhythm, signaling the start of the record’s gloomy second half.

The free-verse “Astro-Mancy” and “I Love You Too, Death” are more thought experiment than song, and most will have no patience for them. Over spare rhythms, VanWyngaarden soothes with sets of obfuscated lyrics in each, both as decipherable as a Rorschach test or any other song on the album, for that matter. The songs are similar in style to the band’s avant-garde set at the Guggenheim, an experience that seems to have factored heavily in how they’ve approached music since. The mood bucks up a little with the psych mantra “There’s Plenty Of Girls In The Sea,” but relents with the record’s weary, Pink Floydian closer, “An Orphan Of Fortune.”

With “MGMT,” the band has again favored the unknown over variations on a theme, which fans of “Oracular Spectacular”—including Columbia record execs—would have loved. If you’re willing to slap on some headphones and give it a few spins of undivided attention, the album reveals some intriguing soundscapes to gawk at. It’ll probably piss a lot of their early adaptors off, but the band didn’t come about by kowtowing to popular demand. Seeing as they’ve branded their latest and weirdest record as self-titled—rock’s version of bold and underlined—you should expect the unexpected from MGMT if you haven’t already.

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