All of MGMT’s work since their 2008 debut “Oracular Spectacular” seemed like a reaction to their meteoric success. They could feel themselves becoming trapped in our collective eighth grade nostalgia and needed to escape.
On the title track of their sophomore album “Congratulations,” Andrew VanWyngarden bitterly sang “It’s hardly a sink or swim/When all is well if the ticket sells.” Their self-titled album sounded dense and joyless, as if they wanted to punish their fair-weather fans. On “Little Dark Age,” their first album in four and half years, they let go of sour feelings and head off in a new direction.
The sonic palate consists of a dancey, psychedelic 80s synthwave. The keyboards, drum machines and bass seem like they originate from a range of cheesy 80s B-movie soundtracks, from ski race to detective thriller to workout tape to romance to porno. Except on acid.
Some would call this pandering to everyone’s wistfulness of the era, but there is something much more sinister at work. The songs are too dark and experimental to allow the listener to become sentimental. Although this album digests easier than their last album, they still include all their oddball idiosyncrasies.
The production on the first three songs is frantic and oppressive, nearly suffocating. It sounds like they recorded the vocals underwater. The title track and “When You Die” have a Gothic flair.
But as the album proceeds, it loosens up and becomes much more open-ended. “Me and Michael,” a kaleidoscopic masterpiece, feels like driving around with the windows down during a July sunset. If the album loses its steam on the second half, it regains its composure in a major way with “Hand It Over.” The track is quite possibly the best song MGMT has ever written and a perfect album closer to play as the credits roll. The instrumentation is lush but the production is minimalist, allowing the chorus to soar into the heavens.
On early songs like “Kids” and “Time to Pretend” it seems like they started with a catchy synth riff, then backtracked. On “Little Dark Age,” those keyboard lines still pop up, albeit more subtly. Their focus has shifted to song structure, melodies and better sound mixing. The songs on “Oracular Spectacular” are for huge crowds at Coachella to jump up and down to. The songs on “Little Dark Age” are for a dance party in your basement with your closest friends.
It seems they refined their focus in nearly every aspect. Their early work concentrated on creating an overarching atmosphere for an album. On “Little Dark Age,” they perfected the mechanics on every single song. Their earlier work painted broad lyrical strokes about the human condition. “Little Dark Age” fixates more on interpersonal relationships. With songs “Me and Michael” and “James” introducing specific characters, it makes the music much more intimate and nuanced. “We can both say who’s laughing now,” VanWyngarden sings on “James.” “It’s yours and it’s mine,” he sings on “Hand it Over.”
The lyrics often become existential. VanWyngarden and Ben Goldwasser are both 35, approaching middle age. On “When You Die” VanWyngarden sings “You die/And words won’t do anything/It’s permanently night/And I won’t feel anything/We’ll all be laughing with you when you die.” On “One Thing Left to Try” he sings “I don’t wanna die/Wishing I’d done something/Before then what’s required/To last until the sunset.”
A little dark age, in my mind, marks a period in someone’s life fraught with frustration, dissatisfaction and misdirection which they can only appreciate after the fact. MGMT seems to acknowledge coming to terms with themselves on this album. On the title track, he sings “Just know that if you hide, it doesn’t go away.” They discuss the ups and downs of fame on the folk lullaby “When You’re Small.” He sings “When you’re big/And troubles seem so far” … “When you’re low/You reach a certain point/Where you can’t see the point.” I have never been famous, but I would assume one of the most difficult things is the loss of anonymity. He sings “When you’re small/You can curl into a ball.”
The only song I can say I don’t particularly care for is “Days That Got Away” which seems like an unnecessary instrumental interlude on a relatively short album. Otherwise, “Little Dark Age” excites the listener. With each go around, the album continues to unravel, layer by layer. It stands as MGMT’s strongest effort front-to-back and capitalizes on the potential they have flirted with for the past decade.