With 2010’s Congratulations, MGMT managed to avoid the question of the difficult second album by creating a record that deliberately placed more demands on the listener than their 2007 debut Oracular Spectacular. Gone were the big radio friendly tunes: nothing could be equated with Time To Pretend or Kids in this album of a more intensely psychedelic persuasion. It was, in a way, a means of saying ‘screw you’ to anyone who had MGMT pigeonholed as a singles band; it was a means of displaying their intent and their ambition.
When it comes to their new self-titled album, however, they find themselves in the lesser-known position of the difficult third album. Should they stick with the deep psych, or should they try for a couple more hit singles?
Fans of the band – not merely of their recognisable hits – will be pleased to learn that MGMT have chosen the former option. This is, of course, what they’re good at. Listen to Oracular Spectacular again, skipping Time To Pretend and Kids, and it becomes more noticeable that this is pretty much what they have been doing all along. So what we have here is the result of a steady process of evolution.
The album begins confidently, front-loaded with its more accessible tracks. Opener Alien Days recalls the Flaming Lips and early David Bowie with its crisply strummed guitar and steady drumming, while Cool Song No 2 retains the same mood, only here it’s driven along by piano rather than guitar.
Introspection is a cover of a semi-obscure 1968 psych track by Faine Jade, and this seems a statement of intent in itself; it’s an assertion that MGMT know their genre well and want to follow in the footsteps of their chosen luminaries. (Incidentally, Faine Jade’s website is well worth checking out, if only to marvel at how the guy clearly hasn’t got over the psychedelic excesses of the late ’60s; it’s a glorious hangover from the Geocities era internet, with animated lava lamps embedded in the background and sprinklings of Comic Sans.) Their version of the song sticks fairly closely to the original, though it’s shrouded in the same fuzziness that clothes the entire album, and introduces woozy tremolo-like sounds during the chorus.
The album’s second side is more playful and meandering. A Good Sadness could be compared with any number of contemporary indie-pop tracks, with big beats and basslines underpinning distant and faintly ethereal vocals, but from there on the music is more distinctive and interesting. Astro-Mancy is gently trance-like, while I Love You Too, Death is more downbeat and introspective, building from heady vibrations and flutes to more steady guitar strumming.
Plenty of Girls in the Sea is a curious interlude that sounds a bit like a lost The Magnetic Fields song that was rejected by Stephin Merritt because too many weird noises mysteriously found their way onto the recording, and then closing song An Orphan Of Fortune takes us deeper into the territory of unchaperoned psychedelic wandering. Like I Love You Too, Death, it begins slowly and dimly, but, rather than building up, it bursts into life when both drums and vocals crash into the track, and soon settles into a groove.
In the same way, MGMT seem to have settled into their groove here, or more correctly their two concurrent grooves. On one hand, they seem able to produce easily digestible fuzzy pop songs slightly reminiscent of soft rock with what appears to be consummate ease; on the other, they can enter into all manner of sonic digressions with a noteworthy lightness of touch. The question that will face them when it comes to their difficult fourth album will be of how they should go about reconciling these two sides, or whether they should do so at all.