Thought the US psych explorers might play it safe this time? Think again: their third LP finds them further out than ever
Pity the band stuck in the last-chance saloon. Once you’ve squandered your success and your corporate paymasters are worried about the running costs of their shareholders’ yachts, you’re going to get reined in. So pity MGMT. After 2010’s ‘Congratulations’ – a bitter, courgette-flavoured lozenge compared to the candyfloss pop of debut album ‘Oracular Spectacular’ in 2007 – their self-titled third album surely sees the band coerced into that purgatory, forced to whip up more ironic electro anthems under the threat of losing their deal…
The hell it does. Despite their decimated fanbase, Andrew VanWyngarden and Ben Goldwasser have refused to back down from their ongoing musical odyssey. In truth, outside of the accountants’ offices, ‘Congratulations’ was no disappointment: a set of pocket symphonies packed with more ideas than most bands have in their whole careers. But it was just too different to their debut for most casual fans, being inspired more by the alternative ’80s of Television Personalities and The Deep Freeze Mice than Bowie or Prince.
‘MGMT’ is something else entirely, though, and even more far-out than the whimsical treats of ‘Alien Days’ and ‘Your Life Is A Lie’ have so far suggested. It’s a dark, difficult album – perhaps the weirdest that a major label has released in years – that shares the electronic soundbed of ‘Oracular…’, but little else. Throughout, the drums are distorted and glitchy, and synths drift woozily by, having more in common with Boards Of Canada’s acid mysticism than the glittering, glammy riffs of MGMT’s debut. Recorded by Andrew and Ben without their live band, and with the help of producer Dave Fridmann, it really does sound like two stoned bedroom explorers, lost beneath an avalanche of vintage synths, bravely blasting even further away from what normally troubles the charts on Earth.
So the tie-dye T-shirts and proggy twists and turns may have gone, but this is undoubtedly the most mind-altering, psychedelic music MGMT have yet made. The mantra-like ‘I Love You Too, Death’ is decorated with Indian drones and finger cymbals; ‘Mystery Disease’, which chugs along with all the inertia and menace of Suicide covering ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’, is packed with VanWyngarden’s eerie, dead-eyed proclamations. All together now, V Festival: “When the west wind sweeps through the leaves/ Emperors of history fall to their knees”.
One highlight is ‘Introspection’, a cover of a forgotten ’60s gem by Faine Jade, which unwittingly exposes the inner workings of the whole album: yesteryear’s drug-damaged psych-folk flights of fancy clothed in the harsh digital fineries of today. On the sombre peaks of ‘An Orphan Of Fortune’ and ‘A Good Sadness’, the dewy-eyed melodies and dismembered arrangements are complemented by lyrics dripping with childhood memories and spooky, half-remembered dreams.
Some will still lament the death of ‘pop MGMT’. Aside from ‘Alien Days’, ‘Your Life Is A Lie’ and the jaunty electro-strut of ‘Plenty Of Girls In The Sea’, which unsettlingly comes on like Fiery Furnaces covering The Kinks, there’s little here that would please those fans who never bothered with ‘Congratulations’. But no-one needs them to churn out inferior versions of ‘Kids’ for cash – after all, Foster The People do that well enough. In a world where bands exist merely to bag the next phone ad soundtrack, the guts and wild abandon of the pair’s singular, foolhardy vision is rare indeed. In fact, as if it wasn’t clear enough already, MGMT aren’t here to please you, or their label – and if you think they owe you another ‘Kids’, you’re as misguided as the grannies who lost interest when The Beatles got into those jazz cigarettes and went a bit funny.
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So, all aboard: ‘MGMT’ might be an uncomfortable journey at times, but it’s also a transcendental one you’ve never been on before. Forget the shareholders – it’s time for us to give MGMT a proper chance, on their own terms.
Record label: Columbia