MGMT, the indie pop superstars who burst out of the gate in 2007 with the beloved Oracular Spectacular, may never have as much commercial success as they did with “Kids” or “Time to Pretend” or “Electric Feel.” But even knowing this, they’ve never allowed themselves to take that as an excuse to stagnate or play it safe. With Congratulations they followed up their debut with a strangely experimental but mostly successful ode to the past. Their 2013 self-titled album took a much bigger risk, removing the band’s signature pop hooks and replacing it with much more demanding left-field music. It didn’t land on most ears. Not even a little bit. In fact, with such a clear decline in quality between their second and third albums, no one really expected MGMT to be able to come back with nearly the same addictive strangeness they used to make.

Which is to say, no one expected Little Dark Age.

The title track and lead single from Little Dark Age is a bit of a misleading teaser. As one of the more serious and “normal” songs on the album, it occupies the niche of being a more straightforward song that’s heavily influenced by The Cure. But further singles like “When You Die” and “Hand It Over” have been much better signals of the absolute madness that defines this record, even in comparison to previous albums by MGMT. It brings back the strong choruses and hooks that define great pop music, but it also adds a near cabaret-level element of dramatic darkness to the mix. Little Dark Age is truly a head-scratching album, but only in the best possible ways.

Playing it for laughs

The premise of the opening song “She Works Out Too Much” is pretty simple. It documents the start of a beautiful Tinder relationship and its tragic downfall because “he didn’t work out enough.” It’s full of muddy synthesizers and melodies that could get stuck in anyone’s head for a week, interspersed with the artificially energetic voice of a workout video coach. It is the first example of a trend that continues throughout the rest of the album: When this album picks a concept, it goes all out on it.

The rest of the album is no less unabashedly “get off my lawn”-like, which works surprisingly to its credit. A similar theme is tackled later on “TSLAMP,” a midtempo jam that turns out to stand for “time spent looking at my phone”. It seems like it should be hokey, but it’s actually hilarious. Andrew VanWyngarden is only 35 years old, but that’s old enough to make him feel like he’s genuinely out of touch with the youth, and he’s making fun of himself more than he’s making fun of “those damn Millennials.”

MGMT has dabbled in satire and dramatization before (see “Brian Eno” from Congratulations), but these techniques are really the entire engine behind Little Dark Age. See Andrew VanWyngarden’s over-the-top tough guy act on the jangly “When You Die,” whose narration of “I’m mean and I’m evil / Don’t call me nice” feels far more defensive than genuine.

“Me and Michael” takes the opposite approach. Lyrically it feels like it should be one of those silly songs that says “hey everyone, look at how awesome my best friend is,” but the ‘80s synthpop sound combined with VanWyngarden’s cold Robert Smith delivery makes it feel almost edgy. He sounds like an emotionless, cynical husk of a man who has finally found someone he’s willing to call his friend, and it’s probably the happiest song on the album for this exact reason.

A circus tent on fire

Much of the sound that MGMT is working with on Little Dark Age (and for that matter, the sound they’ve been working with since the beginning) is indebted to the pop music of the ‘80s. The bright pianos and background vocals of songs like “Me and Michael” and “James” are some of the most extreme examples. Later on in the album, this is taken to entirely new heights with the booming, reverberant percussion of the mighty “One Thing Left to Try.”

But even on an anthemic pop song like this one, the instrumentation is populated by a little bit of grossness. The overpowering bass in the backdrop of this song gives it a kind of ghostliness akin to older groups like Soft Cell and Depeche Mode. Even this is no match for the slimy synthesizers of “Days That Got Away” and “She Works Out Too Much,” the latter of which is one of the densest soundscapes on the entire record.

The overall production style that pervades the majority of this album is a thing of carnivalesque beauty. There’s at least a hint of noir wherever you turn, sometimes buckets of it. For a band whose bread and butter was once light, fluffy singalong tunes, this sound is a bold change of pace. With such an expert combination of light and darkness together in the same songs, Little Dark Age feels like a masterful work of musical black comedy.

“When You’re Small”, the somewhat Beatlesque turn for the slow, is maybe the starkest exception to all the above rules. This penultimate track is the truest ballad on the record, and like “Little Dark Age,” it’s one of the more serious songs here. It seems to use physical size as a stand-in for feeling powerless and trying to find the silver lining in a situation. The closer “Hand It Over” is hardly less gentle, and it’s a great way to end an intense album on a lighter note.

Something borrowed

“When You Die,” the second single from Little Dark Age, has a co-writer credit from a prolific artist known as Ariel Pink. Pink is a fairly influential musician, and as one of the flagship artists of the hypnagogic pop genre, MGMT has probably always been influenced by him. But even apart from the song he helped to write, his footprints seem to be all over this album. The closing track “Hand It Over” almost sounds like it could have been pulled directly from one of his earlier releases.

Does this ruin the album? I don’t think so. Ariel Pink, innovator though he is, has always been an ‘80s musician at heart. Like MGMT, he has always realized that the secret to success is not to be entirely original, but rather to revive the right thing at the right time. This is why The Strokes and LCD Soundsystem have come to be revered as great bands, and it’s definitely what made MGMT so popular in the first place.

While “Days That Got Away” could have maybe been more effective as a condensed interlude track, it may be a treat for fans of Currents, the most recent album from MGMT’s fellow psych-rock revivalists Tame Impala. Meanwhile some of the colder and more calculated moments of vocal delivery feel reminiscent of King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard.

But all of these sounds are chopped up, puréed, and blended into one big MGMT-ified new sound. Somehow on Little Dark Age, MGMT sets itself apart from all other artists in a wholly oversaturated genre and bounds ahead of nearly all of them. At this moment in music where countless ‘80s-inspired bands are flying deservedly under the radar, MGMT has gone back to those same roots and once again managed to make a decades-old style feel dark, exciting, and new.

Top tracks:
“She Works Out Too Much”
“When You Die”
“Me and Michael”
“One Thing Left to Try”

Recommended if you like:
Tame Impala
Alex Cameron
Dan Deacon

Featured image from American Songwriter

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