Album Review: MGMT’s MGMT

It’s a hard thing in music to go off the beaten path, and an even harder one to stay there. Once you establish yourself as an unorthodox band, each subsequent album becomes a struggle between losing that weirdness and allowing it to dominate your music. And make no mistake, there are few bands further off the beaten path than MGMT; hell, they’ve never even heard of that path. Musically, they’re out in the wilderness, living like hermits and writing crazy manifestos. They are weird by weirdness’ standards.

So when we say that MGMT’s most recent album MGMT (yes, that’s the name) doesn’t quite work, recognize that we say that with the utmost sympathy. They’ve wedged themselves into the musical niche between psychedelic electronica and flighty pop, and have made their name on the basis of producing catchy music while consistently bucking convention. That’s a difficult dynamic to make work for a debut album, let alone several follow ups. And you can really hear the songwriting struggling to fit their own ever-constricting brand.

By no means is MGMT a bad album, it’s just a rather uneven one. At its best, the music is that same sublime ambiance of their debut. But at its worst, it becomes shrill, overstated, cliché, and repetitive. And what’s strange is that the contrast occurs on a second-by-second basis. One moment the music is working, the next it falters and lags. It’s almost as if they wrote the good parts of each song first, perfected them, and then realized “crap, we have to do the other two minutes”. Huge portions, in some case entire songs, feel desperately phoned in, the chief offender being “Introspection”, a song that primary describes the phenomena of being introspective in very straightforward terms. It might as well be a power-point presentation on the subject.

Honestly, this should have been an instrumental album; if it had been, we would be having an entirely different conversation about this band, one involving a great deal more praise. The actual composition has done more than hold up; it’s gotten stronger and weirder. It’s developed this dark, almost primal edge to the drum beat, and synth music really works with a sense of powerful understatement. The instrumentals are still trying to push at boundaries of how strange MGMT can be, while the lyrics and vocals have either gotten content or are lapsing back in the opposite direction. Entire songs of good music are ruined by downright lazy lyrics (“There are Plenty of girls in the Sea”? Really?). Had they gone the Beastie Boys route of “the Mix-Up” this could have been a much deeper, understated and coherent piece of music.

This is still the MGMT of Oracular Spectacular, and it’s definitely still worth listening to, but one should do so with tempered expectations. Certain elements of this sound are starting to sag and carry their weight less and less as the novelty wears off.

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