What is a problem, however, is that despite a fairly promising start, nothing at the beginning of MGMT can make up for the migraine inducing cacophony of pointless sound that is the album’s final half.
By Adam Ellsworth
MGMT’s self-titled third album sounds absolutely nothing like their 2007 breakout debut, Oracular Spectacular. This shouldn’t surprise anyone. Nor should it disappoint anyone, or at least not anyone of legal drinking age. After all, the duo’s 2010 release, Congratulations, didn’t sound anything like their debut either, and while that album alienated teenage girls everywhere (not to mention Perez Hilton), it was in fact a successful, maybe even brilliant, dive deeper into the psychedelic rock that was always at the core of even their poppiest material.
With that in mind, the fact that this new album lacks a “Time to Pretend 2.0,” an “Electric Feel, Part Deux,” and a “Kids the Sequel: Never Grow Up!” isn’t a problem, regardless of what some former fans might claim. What is a problem, however, is that despite a fairly promising start, nothing at the beginning of MGMT can make up for the migraine inducing cacophony of pointless sound that is the album’s final half.
Such a shame, as, again, the album doesn’t kick off badly at all. Opening track “Alien Days,” which was the band’s release for this year’s Record Store Day, and has been in their live setlist for more than a year, serves as a sturdy bridge between the end of Congratulations and the beginning of MGMT’s current sound. It’s a bit heavy on laser effects, but an acoustic guitar strum peeks out every once in a while, and though Andrew VanWyngarden’s lyrics are mostly indecipherable, his melody and vocal delivery are pleasing enough that what he’s singing doesn’t really matter anyway. Ultimately, “Alien Days” works because even if all the electronic noise was stripped away, there’d still be a song underneath. And a well-crafted one at that.
This formula of “weird” electronic noises played on top of more “traditional” song structures is for the most part a winning one, and it marks the best songs on MGMT. “Cool Song No. 2” (does that make “Alien Days” “Cool Song No. 1”?) finds VanWyngarden signing in a monotone, Syd Barrett voice over a pounding beat and a fantastic “whheeeewwwwp” effect that if anything doesn’t appear in the song enough. The track is a step beyond the sound of Congratulations without the band going too far into outer space. Ditto for “Mystery Disease,” which features an underwater vocal with heavy keyboards (no doubt played by the other half of MGMT, Ben Goldwasser), and “Introspection,” which is one of the more upbeat songs on the album and is highlighted by a bright melody and infectious chorus.
“Your Life is a Lie” breaks up the album’s starting formula, though a change of pace is welcome at this point of MGMT. It’s not a pop song the same way “Kids” was a pop song, but it’s arguably more accessible than anything on Congratulations. And yet, “Your Life is a Lie” is a bit too jokey to take seriously. Humor has always been one of MGMT’s strongpoints, but it doesn’t really come off here. As a result, “Your Life is a Lie” is a fun song, but not a compelling one.
Despite this, “Your Life is a Lie” is preferable to everything on the album that comes after it. “A Good Sadness,” “Astro-Mancy,” “I Love You Too, Death,” and “An Orphan of Fortune,” are all pretty indistinguishable from one another, which would be fine if they weren’t all so dreadful. The songs share a sonic aesthetic with first half of the album, but anything resembling structure is either missing or buried too deep in the muck to be noticeable. To be more specific, “A Good Sadness” is at times reminiscent of a bad Passion Pit song, which is another way of saying that “A Good Sadness” is MGMT caricaturing themselves and not doing a particularly good job of it. “Astro-Mancy” has a similar vocal to “Cool Song No. 2,” but with far less character, and “I Love You Too, Death,” sounds like a reject from the Myst soundtrack.
Only “An Orphan of Fortune” has anything redeeming about it: the last 30 seconds (which are also the last 30 seconds of the album) feature a guitar line that is the perfect mix of electro and raunch. It’s awfully similar to the guitar tone used by Radiohead on the song “Hunting Bears.” This is probably just a coincidence, but even if it was a conscious lift it’s such a thrilling half minute that the theft is forgiven. If the next MGMT album picks up where the end of “An Orphan of Fortune” leaves off, then the band has a chance to redeem themselves.
Slotted between “I Love You Too, Death” and “An Orphan of Fortune” is “Plenty of Girls in the Sea.” By default, it’s the strongest song on the album’s second half, but like “Your Life is a Lie,” “Plenty of Girls in the Sea” is too goofy to be enjoyed completely. If it were surrounded by better songs, maybe it would get a pass. As it is, it’s a sore thumb on a broken hand.
None of this should be taken to mean that MGMT are done for. There’s just enough to like on this album to hold out hope that the band will someday regain their status as sonic innovators who also happen to write good songs. Too many more uneven releases like this though, and they risk losing more than just their teenage fans.
Adam Ellsworth is a writer, journalist, and amateur professional rock and roll historian. His writing on rock music has appeared on YNE Magazine, KevChino.com, Online Music Reviews, and Metronome Review. His non-rock writing has appeared in the Worcester Telegram and Gazette, on Wakefield Patch, and elsewhere. Adam has a MS in Journalism from Boston University and a BA in Literature from American University. He grew up in Western Massachusetts, and currently lives with his wife in a suburb of Boston. You can follow Adam on Twitter @adamlz24.