Album Review: MGMT – ‘Congratulations’ (Columbia)

Not quite as mad or suicidal as rumour suggested, the duo's follow-up to 'Oracular...' is more conflicted than courageous

It’s unfair when a new album’s clouded in popular myth before most people have heard it. It’s unfair as, invariably, the received wisdom of industry mutters turns out to be bullshit. So, unless you want to bullshit, DON’T SAY this about ‘Congratulations’: “Christ, [a]MGMT[/a] have disappeared up their rabbit holes with a pig-headed suicide note of an album”; DON’T SAY: “It’s so brave of [a]MGMT[/a] to release the LSD ‘Kid A’, bending new corners and alienating fans.” Neither are true. Both make you sound like an awful blogger.

Frankly, anyone who’s ever seen the band’s wilting live show or listened to the songs on ‘Oracular Spectacular’ not called ‘Time To Pretend’ or ‘Kids’ shouldn’t be surprised by what’s here. Unfortunately for [a]MGMT[/a], they have a load of two-song fans, and last month they were booed in London for not playing ‘Kids’. But, frankly, meatheads like that deserve to be disappointed, and God knows the band won’t miss them at the next show. In reality, [a]MGMT[/a] haven’t written a suicide note, they’ve committed murder on that unwanted portion of their fanbase.

Nothing wrong with that; what’s disappointing is how they’ve done it – not with an unsettling dash for the leftfield, but by sabotaging themselves and releasing the remains. ‘Congratulations’ has dropped the hooks and shrugged off pop, but it isn’t the dramatic art project you’d hope for from cynical acid princes with a blank cheque and Sonic Boom’s phone number.

It’s easy to see why on first listen people were racing to write this off as an unlikable, unapproachable record; it’s less of an album, more a collection of psychedelic highs strung together by very little indeed. It’s like listening to an inspired collection of outtakes by some classic damaged band – a catalogue of half-ideas, which, fully realised, could have been brilliant.

It’s so discombobulated that the 12-minute time-frame of the centre-piece, ‘Siberian Breaks’, seems utterly arbitrary, a bracket which could have been thrown over any section of this record, with equal success and coherence. Like the album, there’s plenty to admire inside the song – ideas, a willingness to flit between styles and moods, flashes of beauty and moments of fun – but, just like the rest of the album, every thought is discarded before it blooms.

It’s not a trait that will impress the casual downloader. But to accredit this ambivalence towards structure to [a]MGMT[/a]’s disregard of the fairweather fan may be overstating the solemnity with which they approach their art. The incomplete feel of ‘Congratulations’ seems more like half-heartedness than hard-headedness.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that the band have approached their own talent with such little reverence; after all, their first hit was a guide to becoming a rock star cliché. They’re still entertained by ironic pranks: the slapstick levels of reverence heaped upon the comical ‘Brian Eno’ reek of a stoner private joke; funny for them, sure, but, like most such sniggers, just annoying for anyone else.

For all the frustration, though, there are inspired flashes: ‘Someone’s Missing’ is an anthem sitting strangely as a three-minute song at the top of the album, ‘Flash Delirium’ is a directionless drama, but is full of moments of well-orchestrated complexity. ‘Lady Dada’s Nightmare’ is a flitting, diminutive ‘Great Gig In The Sky’, which will probably sit on repeat in hot-boxed dorms through 2010, while ‘I Found A Whistle’ is a triumphant, complete and uplifting song. Unfortunately, these moments are distributed like a lashed handful of pebbles.

Overall, [a]MGMT[/a]’s refusal to co-operate with the listener jars with the crisp and professional production – which, despite Sonic Boom’s involvement, is more Van Dyke Parks than Spacemen 3 and leaves ‘Congratulations’ sitting somewhere in the middle, not complex enough for the prats, but too obscure for the jerks.

Alex Miller

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