Synth-rock icons MGMT emerge from their ‘Little Dark Age’

At the release of MGMT’s debut album “Oracular Spectacular” in 2007, the duo consisting of Andrew VanWyngarden and Ben Goldwasser achieved almost immediate acclaim for a number of invigorating hits on the record, including “Kids,” “Electric Feel” and “Time to Pretend.”

While these tracks became staple hits for the group, a problem arose when MGMT, a band that never intended to reach stardom through their music, was left to try and craft an album that responded to the monumental acclaim that they had received with their first. Instead of continuing down the path of radio-friendly pop hits, they took their music in another direction on 2010’s “Congratulations,” which was characterized by experimental journeys into their own songwriting style. While in no means a bad record, “Congratulations” hardly met the ridiculous bar that their debut had set, and with their self-titled release in 2013 venturing further down the rabbit hole, it seemed that MGMT was soon to be written off as defunct.

But something has noticeably shifted in the group on their latest release, “Little Dark Age.” That’s not to say that MGMT has forfeited the oddball qualities that made them appealing in the first place, but they’ve finally put more focus on bringing catchiness back into their music. Tracks like “She Works Out Too Much” and “Me and Michael” are immediately appealing in their entrancing ’80s new wave-influenced elements, with lighthearted melodies and instrumentation.

“She Works Out Too Much” intermingles the superficiality of modern relationships with spoken lines of fitness encouragement like, “remember to drink a glass of water before and after you work out” in the tongue-in-cheek spirit of a Richard Simmons tape. “Me and Michael” has a more sincere intention, taking the form of a dreamy synth-ballad that meanders through a story of ambiguous devotion.

Not every song reaches for this lighthearted appeal, however. The titular single, “Little Dark Age,” invokes a dark, gothic mood that’s simultaneously unnerving and danceable. The track delves into feelings of despair while wandering through an unforgiving world, establishing itself as distinctly morbid in comparison to the jovial tracks surrounding it.

Another less ominous track – albeit no less loathsome – is “When You Die,” which details the experience of death through an absurdist lens that intones “We’ll all be laughing with you when you die.” With one of the leading artists in art rock today, Ariel Pink, credited as a songwriter for the track, its off-kilter nature makes a little more sense. Everything in “When You Die” feels slightly, but intentionally off, such as out-of-place guitar leads and chant-like harmonies which lead to a disquieting musical atmosphere to describe a just as disquieting subject of death.

The album closes off its journey with the introspective track, “Hand It Over,” which reflects in melancholic fashion on the state of current political events. As I’m sure many of us are growing weary of our nation’s political turmoil being constantly on the front of everyone’s minds, MGMT expresses the resigned numbness that has taken a foothold in the masses of America, singing the repeated phrase “hand it over” — to just give up control — as the track fades slowly away.

“Little Dark Age” feels like a compromise for MGMT, as the album shows them chasing catchy sounds and rhythms that draw the group ever-so-slightly toward those distant days of “Oracular Spectacular,” but still showing traces of experimentation and continual growth. It’s not likely that MGMT will ever reclaim their grasp over today’s music world like they once did, but having shown to be a band that doesn’t allow themselves to grow too comfortable with any particular sound, I don’t think anyone can say with certainty where they’ll take their style in the efforts to come.

To contact Music Editor Hayden Goodridge, email lifestyles@mtsusidelines.com.

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