Album A&E – an occasional series where we give much-maligned albums a second chance
Two years doesn’t seem long enough for an album’s critical reputation to be cemented, but MGMT’s ‘Congratulations’ was up to its neck in concrete from the start. It didn’t help that Andrew Van Wyngarden and Ben Goldwasser gave giggly interviews revelling in their complete jettisoning of the fanbase nurtured only two years earlier by megahit ‘Oracular Spectacular, and they didn’t do enough to rebuff accusations of “commercial suicide”.
Wayward promotion and critical consensus conspired to label ‘Congratulations’ a disaster, a directionless trip of psychedelic buffoonery. It fit a certain narrative: goofy college boys record some throwaways, they’re souped up by a major label and the fans lap ‘em up like they’re pop’s real deal. The hype machine – plus a couple of true blue hit singles – shifts a million units. Caught in the spotlight, our heroes run scared from the pressure, obliquely disown their debut and hunker down to make a record that means something to them and them alone. Preview pieces across the globe damn the album before it’s out and consign the band to the one-hit-wonder slag heap. Job done.
But what if ‘Oracular Spectacular’ wasn’t the flawless gem of fond memory? Listen at a few years’ remove and it adds up to the admittedly great tongue-in-cheek ‘Time To Pretend’, the nagging-hook-as-song ‘Kids’ and yards of dreary filler. At the very most, it’s one side of hits and another of bland hippy bucolia. The odd thing is, ‘Congratulations’ takes that second side as a starting point and comes up trumps. It finds the fun in the fantasia.
Produced by Ex-Spacemen 3 sonic casualty Pete Kember aka Sonic Boom – obviously the go-to man if you want to own the mainstream – MGMT’s foot-shooter is amazing. There’s more than a scent of the psychedelic, but it’s tempered by a shambling, 80s, indie aesthetic, most obviously in hock to The Television Personalities (whose Dan Treacy is celebrated on the album’s jittery second track), but also to the dense beauty of AR Kane, Cocteau Twins, any other murky, melodic 4AD acts you can pluck from the ether. It’s Zombies whimsy filtered through an anorak.
Above all, there’s a sense of economy, of ideas whittled and released with minimum fuss. ‘It’s Working’ and ‘Song For Dan Treacy’ are madcap, pacy and gleeful. ‘Flash Delirium’, for all its psychedelic switchbacks, is brief for its scope, and so far off its hinges it’s in the next house, freaking out as it opens onto an alien room. The terrific, silly ‘Brian Eno’ is a hit single where there are meant to be none.
Obviously, thrift flies out of the window with the 12-minute ‘Siberian Breaks’, but every magpie odyssey needs an epic. This one feels like an ADD skip through Love’s ‘Forever Changes’, with bombastic diversions through Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin, and boasts the kernels of at least three or four great full-length songs. Brainwaves burst like geysers.
In the end it’s actually mildly frustrating that ‘Siberian Breaks” excerpts are so fleeting. There’s similar regret too that ‘Someone’s Missing’ and the Spiritualized-at-their-most-festive ‘I Found A Whistle’ check out just as they take astonishing flight – but better to whet than to weary. ‘Congratulations’ is a totem for sustained inspiration, deathless melody, the sort of thing careers are built on. If it doesn’t kill them first, obviously.