MGMT returns to pop roots on ‘Little Dark Age’
Brian Boylen | Friday, February 16, 2018
We live in strange times. A billionaire launched his car into space, Twitter makes nuclear war seem ever imminent and MGMT is making pop music again. On Feb. 9, the band released the album “Little Dark Age,” which is a return to their poppy roots and their most accessible release since their debut.
For a duo which saw grand initial success from catchy hits such as “Kids” and “Electric Feel,” their subsequent departure from pop into the less accessible landscape of psychedelic and progressive rock may have seemed a strange choice. While their sophomore LP “Congratulations” certainly has a cult following, much of their initial fan base was turned off by the new sound. Unfortunately for those who just wanted to hear the hits, MGMT was never going to be that band. One of their biggest songs, “Time to Pretend,” was filled with irony, with the duo jokingly pretending to live the rock star lifestyle that they never actually wanted.
Ten years after the release of their 2008 debut, “Oracular Spectacular,” MGMT has finally decided to make pop music again in the form of “Little Dark Age.” But why? Maybe they just wanted people to listen to them again, but I believe that is only a small part of the equation. In an interview with band members Andrew VanWyngarden and Ben Goldwasser, the duo expressed dissatisfaction with the current political and social landscape, an attitude that comes through on multiple songs off the record, as well as in the title itself. Furthermore, they expressed a strong intention to make music that was danceable in order to facilitate people having real life experiences with one another.
I think that is a noble intention in today’s age and “Little Dark Age” certainly lives up to the goal. The album immediately kicks off with opener “She Works Out Too Much,” an energetic, funky track that touches on themes of superficiality in relationships and social media. It is filled with silly samples of a robotic exercise instructor reminding you to focus on form and drink water. While certainly a cheesy touch, it does contribute to the humor and catchiness of the song. This is a theme present across the album — weird lyrics and flourishes are common, but they don’t turn the album into a big joke. They make it more fun.
Two of the singles, “Little Dark Age” and “When You Die,” maintain the momentum from the opener. “Little Dark Age” has a dark sound propelled forward by heavy synths and drums and is topped off with monotonous, detached singing by VanWyngarden. “When You Die” continues the bleak atmosphere and singing, but puts the synths away and picks up a guitar instead. Lyrics such as “Go f— yourself / I’m mean, not nice” are delivered in a jokey way, making them more laughable than depressing.
Despite the foreboding outward surface of “Little Dark Age,” it ultimately is an album with more joy than despair. This positive attitude shines on one of the album’s standouts, “Me and Michael.” The record is, as a whole, a throwback to synth driven ‘80’s pop, but this influence is seen the most on “Me and Michael.” Carried by the exceptionally catchy hook, “Me and Michael / Solid as they come / Me and Michael / It’s not a question now,” the song is an ode to friendship, something that is often ignored by music in favor of romantic relationships. Other stand out tracks include “One Thing Left To Try,” another energetic, positive anthem and “Hand It Over,” a stripped back yet utterly triumphant closer.
While overwhelmingly a success, there are a few missteps on “Little Dark Age.” The deep singing voice used on “James” feels more gimmicky than creative and isn’t backed by tremendously interesting instruments. The good easily outweighs the mediocre, however. “Little Dark Age” is musically interesting and lyrically stimulating, but most of all, it is fun. If MGMT’s intention was a fun album to enjoy with your friends, then they succeeded with flying colors. Whether they keep this pop sound moving forward or turn once again to the experimental is another question. I look forward to seeing what they will do next.
Album: “Little Dark Age”
Favorite Tracks: “One Thing Left To Try,” “Me and Michael,” “When You Die”
If you like: Foster the People, Phoenix, of Montreal