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Album Review: MGMT

June 3, 2010

Congratulations (2010)

I’m admittedly a little late to the party when it comes to reviewing MGMT‘s latest album, Congratulations, released back in April, but oh well.  Now is as good a time as any to post a review since MGMT will be playing a long-awaited gig at Stubb’s this weekend, plus, I’m not at all concerned about being timely.  Because of the delay, I read and heard quite a bit about Congratulations before I had the opportunity to listen to the album, both from the online world, as well as in interviews with Andrew VanWyngarden and Ben Goldwasser, the sensitive kids that make up the band.  The opinions of the albums varied quite a lot, and that, coupled with the band’s (somewhat convincing) woe-as-me banter, pretty much erased any expectations I had for Congratulations.

I really loved MGMT’s debut album, Oracular Spectacular (I wrote one of my very first reviews about it – if you dare, read the terrible, terrible post here), but I never assumed anything about what their follow-up would be like.  Oracular featured such an amalgamation of styles and influences that it was hard to classify MGMT as a band, let alone predict what the sound of their sophomore album would be.  But not all of MGMT’s fans were in that same boat.  Many were highly disappointed with Congratulations, expecting a full album’s worth of the radio-ready, melodic electronic bliss that defined the band’s hits “Kids” and “Time to Pretend.”

With all the serious smack-talk surrounding the release of Congratulations (and it’s Crash Bandicoot-on-acid cover art), I was fully prepared for new songs that didn’t at all resemble the MGMT of Oracular.  Once I started to see live appearances, heard a couple of songs that I really enjoyed, and then listened to the full album several times, I genuinely think that it wasn’t so much what MGMT did/didn’t do on Congratulations that some people took issue with – it was the expectations created by the enormous success of the two singles.  While “Kids” and “Time to Pretend” are terrific songs, they’re not exactly representative of the entirety of MGMT’s sound.  It’s true that MGMT contributed to a new wave of indie synth-pop and neo-psychedelic artists like Neon Indian, Tanlines, and Solid Gold becoming visible to the mainstream, but Oracular had just as many weird David Bowie and early Flaming Lips moments as it did shiny electronic riffs.

Click the jump to read the rest of my take on Congratulations.

And that’s where Congratulations comes in.  For me, the main difference between Oracular Spectacular and Congratulations is that MGMT focused their sound more on the messy, folk-psychedelia aspects of Oracular, much more akin to something like The Beach Boys meet Phil Spector than to the newer, more glossy neo-psychedelic trends.  Congratulations opener, the sunny-sounding “It’s Working” especially draws on this combo, but so does “Someone’s Missing,”  the first half of which is driven by delicate, echoing falsetto and synth before it transitions into a more jangly (but no less ’60s influenced) guitar sound.  Even songs which feature some of the elements that made “Kids” so loved get the trippy treatment – the second half of “Flash Delirium” is almost convincingly a song from another decade, while the first half sounds like it might just go into Neon Indian territory.   The wistful “I Found a Whistle” has an organ, not really an instrument a band might consider using if they’re going for something super-hip, but the second half of the song also has a wobbly, unmistakably modern synth buried under the vocals.

While Congratulations certainly isn’t a perfect album – sequencing issues allow some of the songs to get lost; the 12-minute centerpiece “Siberian Breaks” is filled with noises but not enough purpose beyond weirdness – it does have its moments.  The clear album standouts are the ’70s throwback “Song for Dan Treacy” and the poppy “Brian Eno” which are both really fun and fresh, but many of the other tracks grow on you with more listens.  For me, the seamless incorporation of a multitude of sounds (some so subtle that it might take several listens to identify them), improved and matured songwriting, and the fact that MGMT could have easily made Oracular 2 and specifically and rebelliously chose not to (see: the irony-filled and bittersweet album closer “Congratulations”) indicate that MGMT has grown as a band.  In spite of the precedent set by Oracular, MGMT have created a fine successor; Congratulations is an album that is interesting, diverse, and has a surprising amount of depth.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. June 3, 2010 8:12 pm

    All MGMT will ever have are “those two singles”. Die indie synth-pop, die! Love the blog by the way. “Regular people” are should be targeted, not pretentious know-it-all hipster types.

    • June 3, 2010 8:15 pm

      Yeah, you’re probably right, because no single from Congratulations will ever live up to that hype. I still think it’s a pretty good listen.

      Thanks for commenting Ian! The blog appreciation is mutual. 🙂

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