As a band progresses through its career, it is inevitable that their sound will change. Most often, fans criticize bands for changing their sound to appeal to a larger audience and “selling out.”
MGMT, however, has gone in an opposite direction.
The duo gained overwhelming popularity after their first album, “Oracular Spectacular,” because of upbeat pop hits like “Kids” and “Electric Feel.” The general public viewed MGMT as a catchy electro-pop band because of these singles; however, this wasn’t the persona the duo, Benjamin Goldwasser and Andrew VanWyngarden, wanted. When they went to record their second album, “Congratulations,” they had no intention of making another pop song.
“Congratulations” is a lot less electronic, more influenced by psychedelic and surf rock, and hasn’t a single song for those who only listened to “Kids.” Now MGMT has released their third album, the eponymous “MGMT,” and further distanced themselves from their pop persona.
Upon first listen, “MGMT” is confusing. It’s hard to believe that the same people who made “Oracular Spectacular” made this. After multiple careful listens, the album begins to make more sense. There are two distinct halves to the album, separated by the bizarre single “Your Life is a Lie,” and it’s even more bizarre video. The only other single from the album thus far is “Alien Days,” the album’s opener.
“Alien Days” shows some similarities to previous works, but not much. The space themes, strange key changes, atmospheric synths and oddly catchy melody are similar to early Pink Floyd, while the vocals, guitar, and bass are similar to earlier MGMT tracks like “Metanoia” and “The Youth.” It takes some time to get used to, but “Alien Days” is a standout track on the album.
The second song on the album is creatively titled “Cool Song No. 2,” and is a bit more accessible than “Alien Days.” It features a grooving bass line, conga drums and a mix of piano, organ and experimental synth sounds. There are more Pink Floyd influences present, but The Beatles appear to also have had some influence. Tracks like “Mystery Disease” and “Introspection” delve farther into synth experimentation.
Both songs use plenty of delay and reverb on the vocals and the simple yet strong drumming combined with an atmosphere of whirling synths and droning guitars resemble earlier MGMT songs off “Oracular Spectacular’s” “4th Dimensional Transition” and “The Handshake,” although the new tracks are much more experimental and spacey. “Introspection” is a cover of 60’s psychedelic band Faine Jade.
“Your Life is a Lie” serves as a break between the two parts of the album. It’s a short, quirky song that, when released as a single, confused and upset many MGMT fans. Despite its simple chord progression, the song is a spastic collection of sound that sounds nothing like anything else on the album. The rhythm is based around a cowbell, and strange robot noises are peppered throughout the song.
It seems like MGMT is playing a joke on its fans by making “Your Life is a Lie” a single, but in the context of the album, it makes much more sense. The lyrics reflect the duo’s dissatisfaction with its public image, and the unique sound of the song is used to set apart the shift that happens in the album.
“A Good Sadness” kicks off the second half. Although the song is literally about a previous relationship, it also reflects the feeling of the album as a whole and the progression MGMT has gone through. The opening line states, “I can still hear the reflections in the air,” which is how many MGMT fans feel about the band. The sound they once produced is now in the past and will never come back, and this brings some sadness, but the new sound is good as well. The song is a combination of trance and psychedelic rock — a strange fusion — but this song is another standout on the album.
Of the last four songs, “Plenty of Girls in the Sea” stands out as the most unusual, yet it’s possibly the best song on the album. The lyrics are silly yet thoughtful, the keyboards wander in and out of key, odd vocal samples hover in the ether of sound, and pounding drums keep everything together.
“MGMT” is a strange assortment of sound, drawing influences from many genres, yet it doesn’t confine itself to any genre. MGMT has eschewed the traditional ideas of what makes a good album, and found something new and worthwhile. It won’t bring them the success of the past, but it shows that VanWyngarden and Goldwasser are more concerned with making the kind of music they want to make rather than what others want them to make.
Speakeasy rating: A
Recommended tracks: “Alien Days,” “Plenty of Girls in the Sea,” “A Good Sadness”