Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Album Review: MGMT Congratulations

Most of my opinion of MGMT can be summarized by a YouTube video I found when I was on a Talking Heads kick that portrays Wesleyan students Andrew VanWyngarden and Ben Goldwasser covering “This Must Be the Place (Naïve Melody)” in what seems to be an impromptu concert outside their dormitory back in 2003. Although their performance comes off as amateur, at the very least it’s hard not to find endearing. Here are two liberal arts kids playfully displaying some good taste, good intentions and nice synth equipment, but not taking themselves too seriously. Even though the execution isn’t necessarily there, that feels ok.

Over the next five years Andrew and Ben would develop and release the electro-pop smash Oracular Spectacular as MGMT. And although clearly they had polished up their act a bit, many of the same qualities that made them appealing in that video contributed to their very successful debut. They couldn’t really sing. They wore silly outfits. But in a time when many other electronic groups were trying to be avant-garde, they wrote simple but incredible synth-hooks to songs about growing up that evoke a sense of nostalgia to those that have already been there, done that, and are relatable to those on their way. And lyrics like “We’re fated to pretend” indicated they still didn’t take themselves too seriously, which meant we still didn’t have to either. All we had to do was enjoy them, and ourselves, for what they were.

While charming, that kind of appeal doesn’t necessarily have staying power in the music industry; in fact it’s the calling card of one-hit wonders. Being cute or a novelty eventually wears off, and you can’t always be in the right place at the right time. I often don’t agree with Rolling Stone, but I thought their note summarizing Oracular as they ranked it the 18th best album of the decade pretty spot on: “Two hipster geeks from Wesleyan plug in their rad vintage keyboards, pick out some far fetching headbands and compose a suite of damn-near-perfect synthesized heartache. . . but there’s also a sense that MGMT only could have happened right now.”

In other words, if MGMT wanted to continue to be successful post-Oracular, they had their work cut out for them with what is already one of the most daunting tasks in music: the sophomore follow-up to an iconic debut. Would MGMT end up making what equates to a B-sides release of Oracular, good but too similar to warrant any special praise, like The Strokes and Interpol had done with Room on Fire and Antics? Would they lose their identity by trying something completely different and falling on their faces like the Killers had done with Sam’s Town?

When it was announced that MGMT was releasing their follow-up album Congratulations as a “no singles album”, not releasing or promoting particular tracks and instead encouraging a more “individualistic” exploration of the album, most immediately feared the worst. Not only did it just seem like a poor marketing strategy for a band who had achieved success by writing catchy singles that America’s youth rallied had around as anthems, but it was hard not to be skeptical that a “no singles album” really meant “there are no songs on this album good enough to be singles.” Such a stunt seemed the equivalent of the film industry practice of not pre-screening movies that are so bad they will undoubtedly get lampooned by critics, thereby delaying a negative buzz.

Perhaps lowering expectation was part of the strategy, and if so it worked, because otherwise I don’t know if I would have made it through the first two dizzying tracks of Congratulations. On “It’s Working”, over-dubbed staccato vocals (and is that a French accent?) delivered over frantic synths and harpsichords had me convinced that I was listening to Air-on-crack or a post-punk rendition of Rolling Stones failed space-rock excursion Her Majesties Satanic Request. These themes continue on “Song for Dan Treacy”, as MGMT straddles a kind of awkward line between prog and glam that sometimes sounds like bad Bowie. If you listen closely at points you can even hear the goblins from Labyrinth doing background vocals.

However, the band manages to shake-off their sophomore insecurities after this initial stumble and seem to find their footing in the slower tempo of “Someone’s Missing”, reintroducing us to those comfortable and familiar falsetto vocals which we heard on Oracular’s “Electric Feel”. From here on out the songs are much more well composed and conceived, and the album begins to hit a stride through the next few tracks before delving into the spacey 12-minute endeavour “Siberian Break”, a schizophrenic, acid-induced adventure containing both gaffes and moments of brilliance, making it representative of the album as a whole. And, like the album, the track is ultimately rewarding, at times showing an airy psych-pop expertise reminiscent of the Flaming Lips. Still, Congratulations continues to offer its occasional misfire, such as on the track “Brian Eno,” which not only errs musically in the same vein as the opening tracks, but begs the question, “Is there any move in the ‘Appeal to Hipsters’ playbook as desperate as simply evoking the name of Brian Eno?”

Congratulations closes with the title track, although this tranquil song centered around a catchy vocal melody is barely indicative of the rest of the album. That also happens to make it far and away the most accessible song on Congratulations, and perhaps also its best, but unfortunately not nearly flashy enough to make it a good single. This relaxed endnote could be deciphered as a sigh of relief, and over a lackadaisically pounded bass drum and lightly strummed acoustic guitar, VanWyngarden sings, “All I need’s a great big ‘Congratulations’,” which he deserves for this challenging but worthwhile album. Although I highly doubt that in the closing weeks of 2019 we’ll see this sophomore effort on anyone’s list for albums of the decade, by no means does that make it a failure. The imperfections are there, and sometimes glaring, but under extreme pressure to deliver MGMT has attempted something starkly different from their debut, something that challenged expectations of them, and manages to escape largely unscathed. And while that might sound like a back-handed compliment, it's certainly not meant to be. If anything, it took this highly skeptical critic and made a believer out of him. While observing someone being “naïve” can, in some cases, be endearing, as it was when watching Andrew and Ben cover an appropriately titled song as college kids, so can watching someone mature and develop beyond childish notions. MGMT has grown up, and it’s time we begin to take them seriously.

You can listen to Congratulations streaming or by individual tracks here:


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    Hi Matt,

    On behalf of Columbia Records and MGMT many thanks for plugging "Congratulations" on your site (street date 13th April) ... .. thanks, also, on behalf of the label, management and artist for not posting any pirate links to unreleased (studio) material and, if you / your readers want good quality, non-pirated, preview tracks, then a full length version of "Flash Delirium" is available for fans and bloggers to link to / post / host etc at ... .. for further details of the new album, on-line promotions, videos and 2010 shows, check-out the official site, as well as the artist's MySpace at and YouTube channel at ... .. and keep an eye on these official sources for details of further news, preview material and on-line promotions.

    Also and as a goodwill gesture to fans and bloggers, an exclusive preview stream of the full album is currently available via the band’s website at ... .. this is for hyper-linking ONLY and for streaming by fans directly off the band’s official website, so please reciprocate this goodwill gesture by NOT ripping or embedding these files.

    Thanks again for your plug.