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MGMT: Little Dark Age review – synthpop pranksters get serious for a change

New management … Ben Goldwasser and Andrew Van Wyngarden, AKA MGMT
New management … Ben Goldwasser and Andrew Van Wyngarden, AKA MGMT Photograph: Brad Elterman

What do you do after you’ve committed career suicide? It’s a question you suspect may have hung heavy over Ben Goldwasser and Andrew VanWyngarden, better known as MGMT. Ten years ago, their debut album, Oracular Spectacular, catapulted them to fame: they were nominated for Grammys, their songs were covered by everyone from Katy Perry to Weezer, their music was sampled by Frank Ocean and Beyoncé. But fame was something the duo didn’t seem keen on, perhaps because, in their telling, MGMT was originally intended as a joke: a couple of smartarsed college kids making ironically poppy music with lyrics mocking rock excesses. (“I’ll move to Paris, shoot some heroin and fuck with the stars,” go the lyrics of breakout hit Time to Pretend.) The joke got taken seriously to the tune of 1m sales.

And so they did something about it. Congratulations (2010) sounded less like their debut’s synthy psych-pop than a strain of obscure early-80s British indie that wonkily Xeroxed 60s psychedelia for the troubled Thatcher era: the Television Personalities, the Cleaners from Venus, the Deep Freeze Mice. Clearly, not even the most vociferous fan of the last band’s oeuvre (Hitler’s Knees, My Geraniums Are Bulletproof, Peter Smith Is a Banana, etc) would claim this as a recipe for success. So it proved: Congratulations sold 66,000 copies in its first week and 11,000 in the next 18 months. There were even fewer takers for its eponymous 2013 successor.

And so, here we are, a decade on from Oracular Spectacular, with MGMT somehow still in possession of a deal with a major record company, proffering a fourth album in an amateurish-looking sleeve that resembles something a tiny, cash-strapped indie label might have put out 35 years ago. But first appearances are deceptive. Inside lurks music suggesting a dramatic rethink. Little Dark Age is audibly more rooted in mainstream mid-80s electronic pop than anything MGMT have recorded before: the title track is an uneasy take on the kind of super-smooth synth music that might once have cropped up on the soundtrack to Miami Vice, and One Thing Left To Try and TSLAMP reanimate a dreamily romantic Euro-pop sound. But that isn’t what’s different. It’s that, unlike with its two predecessors, you’re almost never struck by the sensation of a band deliberately trying to suppress the urge to write tunes.

At its least appealing, as on opener She Works Out Too Much, Little Dark Age offers up meditations on social media as forehead-slappingly hackneyed as those peddled on Arcade Fire’s last album, set to music that strikes a similarly churlish note to Congratulations’ wilfully difficult moments. The off-key keyboards and perky female voiceover have a ring of smug parody, as if, like sometime collaborator Ariel Pink, they’re making pop music despite the fact that they think pop music is slightly beneath them.

But that stuff is swamped by tracks on which MGMT get over themselves and allow their natural way with a melody free reign – the gorgeous melancholy sigh of closer Hand It Over and the euphoric Me and Michael among them. It works precisely because letting loose with their pop inclinations doesn’t preclude the duo’s penchant for hallucinogenic weirdness at all. When You’re Small offers up a very Syd Barrett-esque combination of overcast, ominous music and childlike lyrics – doll’s house darkness, as Pink Floyd’s erstwhile leader once put it – while Days That Got Away sounds like a pop record as heard by someone who has overindulged so much they’re about to pass out.

It’s interesting to speculate about what provoked this turnaround: perhaps MGMT have reconsidered their aversion to commercial success; perhaps they just got sick of playing gigs at which a huge chunk of the audience was clearly only there to hear three old tracks. Or perhaps, rather than the opening of an unexpected second act in MGMT’s career, Little Dark Age is just a temporary blip, and normal service is shortly to be resumed. In a recent Rolling Stone interview, the pair talked of creating “immersive art installations” and “musical landscapes” instead of songs. Or not making albums at all: “I would love to go from just fucking around in my attic to putting something on YouTube,” said VanWyngarden. In which case, you should enjoy Little Dark Age – the sound of MGMT doing what MGMT do best, whether they realise it or not – while you can.

This article titled "MGMT: Little Dark Age review – synthpop pranksters get serious for a change" was written by Alexis Petridis, for The Guardian on Thursday 8 February 2018 12.00pm

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