Benjamin Goldwasser and Andrew VanWyngarden from MGMT need to decide what kind of band they want to be. It’s a pretty unique headfuck to have three party pop songs you wrote quickly and without much thought—“Time to Pretend,” “Kids,” and “Electric Feel”—launch your semi-serious band, absurdly, into headlining stadiums and amphitheaters. MGMT went from playing halls at their alma mater Wesleyan University to supporting Of Montreal and Radiohead in a little more than a year, and in 2008, those songs were everywhere, licensed and embraced by kids across America.
It wasn’t a fluke these guys became famous so quickly. There’s such a pure pleasure in the loud primary technicolor synth hooks on “Kids” and “Time to Pretend.” With no intention of ever becoming as big as they did, and a sarcastic attitude toward the songs that made them successful and filled their audience with airheads and kids who couldn’t give a shit about the band on stage, the duo retaliated with 2010’s Congratulations, a total triumph, a dizzying and astounding record of Zombies-esque 60s pastiche and Scooby Doo music. From beginning to end Congratulations is a mesmerizing windmill of ideas and precise pop execution, and proof, still standing, that this is a major band, eager to take in the rarefied air of major label money to make an adventurous, questioning album that’s beautifully catchy and wonderfully weird all at once.
I can only imagine how overwhelming the pressure in that situation would be. The press scratched their heads at Congratulations, and it’s not hard to believe a good chunk of the kids filling the amphitheaters are even aware the album exists. It’s started to get its due, with critics reluctantly backpedaling, leading to its current status as a musician’s favorite, notably boosted by Panda Bear, when few others bothered to give it a chance. Congratulations is a really moving record, and “It’s Working,” “Song for Dan Treacy,” “Someone’s Missing,” “Brian Eno,” and “Congratulations” hit whatever Looney Toons bulls-eye they were trying to make.
Which is a long way of getting to something that doesn’t take much explaining: MGMT is a mess, not without merit, but a work in progress in every way. Congratulations has a warm, inviting sound that, despite being dense, doesn’t wear on the ears, three years on. MGMT sounds like steel wool, with a flat, loud mix that’s really unflattering and fatiguing to listen to. The songs are aimless and too timid to say anything musically or lyrically. Every song has great ideas—the turnstile rhythms of “Astro-Mancy,” the drone siren sound leading “A Good Sadness” (which really sounds like an outtake from Panda Bear’s Tomboy), the melody of “Plenty of Girls in the Sea,” obscured by inscrutably industrial production. There is one brilliant song here: “Your Life is a Lie,” its desperate nihilism is uplifting and endearing in its repetition and slight variation. Adorned in fuzzy organ drones, conspicuous cowbell, shrill percussion and synthesis sandwiched between gorgeous multi-tracked vocals proclaiming, chanting over and over in a wonderfully hypnotic nursery rhyme: “Your life is a lie/Your life is lie a lie/Wondering why/Hold your breath/Everyone left/Don’t say a word.” Infectiously catchy, endearingly misanthropic and challengingly, painstakingly crafted (unlike the rest of the record), “Your Life is a Lie” is MGMT’s two minutes of saving grace, and all the proof they need they’re still valid.
—Follow Nicky Smith on Twitter: @MUGGER1992