MGMT - "Little Dark Age"
LITTLE DARK AGE
February 9th / Columbia Records
We’re not going to talk about Oracular Spectacular. We are all familiar with the smash hits Andrew VanWyngarden and Ben Goldwasser unexpectedly gave the world over ten years ago. The reality is, that isn’t what MGMT is or was ever about. They’ve spent 10 years pushing that album as far away from themselves as possible. They’ve dared their fans to stick with them on their journey of psychedelic synth-pop injected with the relentless and distracting, albeit impressive production of Dave Fridmann. Every note and every riff of Congratulations did the opposite of convention. One big middle finger to the music industry and the insatiable thirst for hit singles that MGMT helped create. That was then, this is now. Little Dark Age is a clearer representation of what MGMT has always wanted to be. Creative, and ambitious to a fault. Little Dark Age shows flashes of the musical brilliance, teasing the world with riffs that come within an inch of greatness, only to reject it and force an off-key note or a change in direction lathered in effects. The greatest moments on the album come when the busyness is subdued, the echo and delay effects are extinguished, and the true focused mission of the band comes through. Unfortunately, they won’t let their own greatness be realized, for better or for worse.
Starting us off, “She Works Out Too Much” sounds like a transition song in a game show. The song never settles itself down into a unified sound. The drums are sporadic, the vocals distant and the message resembles a vague hatred of dating app technology. Each instrument is doing its own thing, paying no attention to the rest of the ensemble, making parts a busy mess. Buried deep beneath the clutter are fundamentally good ideas, but it’s a confusing effort with far too much going on. The song is overproduced and under-realized. As with many songs on the album, the song represents a good idea being stretched out beyond its capabilities.
The good news is Little Dark Age slowly starts to focus and align itself. The title track has a badass, head-nodding chunky block-bass synth line that drives on top of an infectious, nearly anthemic lyrical verse. "Little Dark Age" is about depression, grieving, and anxiety about oneself and feelings. The song is littered full of metaphors and imagery that can be interpreted in all sorts of ways. “I grieve in stereo, the stereo sounds strange. I know that if you hide, it doesn’t go away” sings VanWyngarden. Perhaps referring to the relentless dark cloud that is depression or perhaps musing about the previous success of the band that won’t go away. In any case, the title track is extremely dark, and one of the brightest spots on the album.
“When You Die” is everything MGMT does well. It is a great song. Eerie guitar work and the restraint to keep effects and panning to a minimum allow the song to morph into a hypnotic zone. Simplified in its musical elements, the song allows cohesion in its message and showcases the production elements as an enhancement, not a hindrance. It’s almost jarring when the reverb and echo fall away and we are left with just simple musical instruments. Hell, the song is even structured and focused enough for you to sing-along to. Again, we’re talking about some heavy shit here. Death, suicide, and a self-loathing protagonist.
MGMT not only can’t stay away from dreamy synths from the 80s, it’s what makes them who they are. “Me and Michael” is straight out of 1983. Regrettably, It meanders and falls flat for nearly 5 minutes. There is nothing of substance or any production trick to give a listener any reason to listen to the ambiguous song about a relationship with Michael. “TSLAMP” seems only a vessel for VanWyngarden to vent about his disappointment of the amount of time he spends looking at his phone. Sounding like it’s straight off Ween’s Chocolate and Cheese, “TSLAMP” has a fun 1980 electro beat and accessible moments throughout its strange vibe.
The album, however, does not wander aimlessly or limp to the finish line. The most impressive, concise and sonically appropriate songs are the final four. “Days That Got Away” is groovy instrumental with wavy synth work and sexy bass. The drums play with time-signatures slightly without getting in the way, and the band shows just how great they are at writing a melody when they want to. The modest, yet catchy synth melody teases us briefly with the nostalgia of 2007, before giving way to a psychedelic guitar solo. Few, if any bands, can create music like this. “One Thing Left to Try” is one of, if not the only song on the album with a deliberate conviction, energy, and intention. It is direct. It can be imagined playing during a 1980s workout VHS tape, and it’s great. It’s the most dancey, upbeat and fun song on the track, making it curious it doesn’t appear until song eight of ten.
Lyrically, MGMT teeters between brilliant and lazy. On “When You’re Small”, lyrics like, “When you’re small, you’re not very big at all. When you’re small, you can curl into a ball.” It reeks of a nursery rhyme to inspire small children. The vagueness is scattered throughout the album, and never allows us to make a definitive interpretation of what’s being sung about. Many of the lyrics tend to reflect on the pressures of achieving meteoric success in the music biz. While the lyrics come across somewhat heavy at times, the album overall is one of positivity. VanWyngarden told Rolling Stone Magazine that it is a "little" dark age, after all. “Hand It Over” perfectly concludes Little Dark Age. It is a beautiful, soft and optimistic look at the future of the world. Never forced, every note is in its right place.
It’s hard to say how conscious MGMT is of their journey and it’s a stretch to say Little Dark Age is a streamlined and focused album. But it does, however, show the duo taking a more basic approach to song-writing. This return to basics not only allows the listener to soak in more of it but allows the music itself to breathe and bask in its own glory. There are moments of real excitement and energy throughout the album, and there are moments of cheesy excess. There is some structure, there are some sing-along choruses and there are some hooks. Oozing with originality and their distinct psychedelic synth-pop hooks, Little Dark Age edges MGMT closer to effectively balancing creativity and talent with needless excess and frills.