Best of the B-Sides: “Metanoia” by MGMT

No good ever comes from being that person who complains that a band’s most popular songs are overrated. But MGMT is that person in regard to their own music, and against all odds, some good has come from it.

When MGMT released the Time To Pretend EP in 2005, fresh out of school at Wesleyan University, the synth-heavy, psychedelic duo blew up over night, it seemed. The first and last songs on the EP, “Time To Pretend” and “Kids,” launched the band to instant popularity, earning attention from Columbia Records, who put out MGMT’s debut album Oracular Spectacular in 2007. Soon, MGMT’s Andrew VanWyngarden and Ben Goldwasser grew tired of their singles’ success, feeling as though their mystic, transcendental music project was being reduced to a two-hit-wonder.

In 2010, MGMT followed up the Grammy-winning Oracular Spectacular with Congratulations, a more musically complex album featuring songs like “Siberian Breaks,” a twelve-minute, carefully constructed psychedelic journey, “Lady Dada’s Nightmare,” a borderline-terrifying instrumental with discordant violins and screams from fictional monsters, and “Flash Delirium,” a slowly-building song with various layers of vocals, culminating in a climax of VanWyngarden screaming things like, “Stab your Facebook/Sell, sell, sell.” Congratulations was far less commercially successful than Oracular Spectacular, and MGMT expressed noticeable frustration that their first singles were overshadowing the drastically different material on their new album. After a show in London in 2010, The Guardian wrote that when MGMT played “Time To Pretend,” they sounded “robotic and a bit annoyed, as if they were being forced to recite a really, really long shopping list.”

When “Time To Pretend” was released as a single in 2008, the CD version included the b-side “Metanoia.” Like “Siberian Breaks,” which came later in 2010, “Metanoia” is an epic of sorts, clocking in at an overwhelming thirteen minutes and fifty seconds. Despite its length, “Metanoia” is not self-indulgent – in fact, it’s not difficult at all to listen to the song all of the way through, as it’s loaded with tempo changes and varying tones, oscillating between different psychedelic sounds, which are grounded by repetitive guitar and piano riffs.  At some points, “Metanoia” sounds like a psychedelic rock opera, dramatic, bold, and booming, while at other times, the song sounds like what elevator music might be like on an alien planet.

One of the song’s most interesting moments occurs about three-and-a-half minutes in. The mixture of clear, unadulterated piano riffs and galactic, distorted guitar sounds fades out into silence, and Goldwasser speaks, hasty and energetic as though he’s telling a story to his friends at a party: “Just before the show, this wild eyed kid came up to the fence. He took one look at us, and he said…” The music resumes. In unison, VanWyngarden and Goldwasser shout, “Help me! Drummer! Ticket! Yeah!” with each word punctuated by kaleidoscopic guitar riffs. For a brief moment, Goldwasser’s voice drifts back into focus: “We didn’t play his favorite song.” Again in unison, the duo sing in a falsetto, “Now he’ll never come to another show!” over and over like the exclamations of “Galileo!” in “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Soon, their voices fade out and are replaced by a calmer, more pensive interlude.

In this section of the song, it almost seems as though VanWyngarden and Goldwasser are predicting their fans’ negative reactions to their upcoming sophomore album. It’s self-aware in an intriguing way, especially with a song about an introspective, psychological phenomenon as its backdrop (“Metanoia” is an allusion to the idea of personality changes propagated by Carl Jung, who appeared as a cartoon “mystic referee” on the album art of “Metanoia” when it was later rereleased as a single). Even more ironic is that this moment of bitterness toward MGMT’s false fame occurs on the b-side of “Time To Pretend,” one of the songs that brought MGMT overnight popularity. It’s daring in a way that only makes the band seem more human and likable.

“Metanoia” might not be as commercially appealing as “Time To Pretend,” but it’s a song that exists on a completely different playing field than anything that MGMT had released up to that point. It’s not at all easy to write a fourteen minute song that doesn’t feel overdone or heavy-handed, but MGMT manages to pull it off. No matter what, it’s safe to say that MGMT will always write what they want to write, never letting themselves be swayed by what might bring them the most mainstream success.

Listen to “Metanoia” below:

Featured photo courtesy of the artist. Band photo via Facebook.

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