MGMT’s experimental sound matures, maintains nostalgic style

While pop music at the top of the charts wants to take us back to the ’90s through new jack swing, MGMT is taking us back even further into the ’80s with synth-pop. After a debut album that unintentionally sprung itself into the mainstream, MGMT’s past two releases have been dogged by poor reception and overcalculated experimentation. This struggle to find their footing was due to a constant attempt to distance themselves from the dominant tropes related to pop music. MGMT’s most recent album “Little Dark Age,” released on Feb. 9, seems to be the first one to successfully back off from this approach and focus on a more genuine experimentation with sound that still holds an aesthetic unity.  

Although the album is not conceptually cohesive, its artistic harmony is born from a structure that emphasizes ascension out of the dark age—for themselves and for society at large—with a long swim to the surface. The opening notes on “She Works Out Too Much” almost feel like they throw you deep into what would normally be the middle of an album, despite simply being the first song. The first set of songs takes the heaviest ’80s influence—“Me and Michael” features twinkling guitar and has the layered vocals of any old ’80s soundtrack, while “Little Dark Age” takes on an odd similarity to Giorgio Moroder’s galactic sound on “From Here to Eternity” with a darker and heavier tone. These topics also deal with heavier personal subjects, from a failing relationship in “She Works Out Too Much” to depression in “Little Dark Age.” These themes expand into larger reflections on the self and relationships from “wondering where the hours went” while looking at the phone in the number “TSLAMP” to keeping the door for friends “always open” in the song “James.”

“Days That Got Away” functions as a transition, and almost as an intermission, with its strong instrumentality and minimal vocals. This song, though, has a fast tempo that cooks away beneath the surface sounds, thus impeding on its transportive quality. This song would better punctuate the album as a whole if it were slowed down and forced its listener to do the same. However, the title of the song falls perfectly on brand with MGMT’s recurring theme of nostalgia for the now—for the moments we live in even as we realize that they are passing us by and won’t come back again. The final three songs falsely present a sunnier disposition—through lyrics or instrumentation—but these qualities camouflage the heavier, intimate issues that are more freely discussed in the opening songs of the album.

“One Thing Left to Try” has a more cheery beat carrying it than previous songs, but openly discusses a struggle with suicidal thoughts. The final two songs use more coded language to discuss intimate issues, but highlight traditional instruments over a synth, unlike any other songs on the album. “When You’re Small” keeps the lyrics to literal meanings of “small” while simultaneously implying sentiments of feeling small. For MGMT, this could even relate to their smaller position within the record industry as a duo that has gone well off the public’s radar.

Finally, this expansion from the self ends on “Hand It Over,” which rings rather homey and jubilant, yet it continues in a staggered manner that builds through the album’s progression. This song seeks to reflect back on MGMT’s career and current positioning as a band. At one instance, it even takes a pointed aim at their second and third albums that failed to take off, stating, “the smart ones exit early.” The song, according to the band, takes on political undertones: band members stated in a Rolling Stone interview, “That’s pretty much directly about Donald Trump” (Rolling Stone, “MGMT’s Pop Adventure: How Duo Bounced Back 11 Years After Debut,” 01.25.2018). However, lines like “the joke’s worn thin, the king stepped in,” utilize coded language, thus causing the duo to miss their chance at taking a strong and acerbic stance against Trump.

Sonically, the album cements MGMT as both an innovator and a brand. They have a sound uniquely their own, derived in part from their existence across genres—indie rock, psychedelic rock and electropop. This unique blend builds a peculiar soundscape style into the melody of their songs by foregrounding instrumentation and using vocals more as a powerful accent throughout the album. The auras built are subject to individual interpretation, but are undeniably there—for me personally, “Me and Michael” somehow prompts the feeling of swimming through goo. This disparity between dreamy music and intense, often darker, topics creates an optimistic and approachable tone throughout the album. MGMT tries to remind us to think of our dark stages as “little” and conquerable. While the auditory qualities and themes represent the emergence of a more mature MGMT, the songwriting has not improved as much. In dealing with the media saturated nature of their—and our—generation on “TSLAMP,” the singer touches on the larger issue at hand by saying, “Gods descend to take me home, find me staring at my phone.” They choose to repeat the phrase, “Time spent looking at my phone,” in order to drive home the points that they are making, but in the process, they compromise on the depth of their lyricism. This sort of touch-and-go writing detracts from their presentation of larger ideas.

MGMT has successfully brought forth an evolved and intentional sound—rather than engaging in experimentation for the sake of experimentation—while hanging onto the larger sonic and theoretical ideas that define them: unique, ambient production with a nostalgia for the now and for our youth as it escapes from in front of us. On the path of defining themselves, “Little Dark Age” has been MGMT’s best step so far.

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