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MGMT’s new album falls flat

Matt McMahon | Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Even at their most accessible, namely, 2007’s standout debut album “Oracular Spectacular,” MGMT have always been pretty weird guys – just take another look at that title or the title of any of their other releases. On “Oracular,” the duo of lead singer and guitarist Andrew VanWyngarden and sampler and synth player Ben Goldwasser pushed the envelope of modern electronic pop, and mainstream musicians have been striving to emulate this sound since. Meanwhile, MGMT have not stuck around to reap the now easy success of rehashing the music captured on that LP but instead continue to test the boundaries of their art. Check 2010’s “Oracular” follow up, “Congratulations,” for the band delving into more guitar-based progressive psych and creating a blend of psychedelic pop and crisp surf rock while experimenting with unique song structures.

By the lead of promotional singles “Alien Days” and “Your Life is a Lie,” MGMT expressed they would be headed for more weirdness on their third, self-titled, LP.  Uncomfortable with the widespread success of their debut, especially a handful of songs from that album, the band members have said they wanted to move away from that sound and explore more complicated music. It’s an honorable direction in which to lead. Yet, with their attitude going into this album, the band seems like the cool kid in high school who found out everyone only liked him for his car. He decides to alienate all the people he knows, hoping to figure out who likes him for him and not just his stuff.

The result is an uneven attempt at an art album that could have been grandiose. While select looped rhythm sections – like the bouncing beat on “Mystery Disease,” the driving consistency of “Your Life is a Lie” and the subtlety of “Astro-Mancy” – provide sparks, the album has little pacing or poise. The guitar and synth instrumentations pass in and out of the ear, floating like an even current: never disrupting, elevating or crashing.  Innocuous beeps and warped chords heard throughout the album rarely come together to form anything more than the notes that they are. In the same vein, the writing lacks depth – what’s being said is merely said, without feeling or emotion in either its presentation or performance.

There are some interesting grooves and melodies, but, like the muddled vocals featured throughout, not much rises above the middle ground that the album lies in for the majority of its 10 tracks. Instead of coming off like a drug-induced kaleidoscopic lightshow, “MGMT” plays like a bothersome, tepid trip, with its standouts rooted in familiarities. The most pop-oriented songs, which MGMT claim to be working hard to get away from – namely, single “Your Life is a Lie,” Faine Jade cover “Introspection” and cheeky “Plenty of Girls in the Sea” – contain the energy, playfulness and inspiration missing from the rest of the release. Perhaps the cool kid’s car really was his most likable quality after all.

In terms of its psychedelic approach, “MGMT” lacks the thrilling innovation of Animal Collective, the instrumentation and atmosphere of Spiritualized and the clever expansion upon tradition that Tame Impala or Foxygen do so well. Though MGMT’s intentions are clearly presented, they do not back them up with their music. Instead of alienating fans of their pop successes, “Electric Feel,” “Kids” and “Time to Pretend,” by making more sonically complex and difficult prog or even space rock, MGMT alienates themselves with this middling album. That’s not to say that their intentions are not worthy of applause – wanting to challenge not only themselves, but also listeners, with something new is noteworthy, especially when doing so on a major label. It’s just a shame that they were not as inspired or intriguing as they set out to be.

Contact Matt McMahon at [email protected]