MGMT expands their psych-pop horizons

By Hank Brown

Very few musicians go from playing hour-long jams of the “Ghostbusters” theme in college to being rocketed into psychedelic superstardom as fast as Andrew VanWyngarden and Ben Goldwasser, otherwise known as the meat of pop sensation MGMT. Their sophomore effort, “Congratulations,” is a slightly darker and weirder trip down psych-pop alley, and achieves what I believe VanWyngarden and Goldwasser intended: to not produce even one hit single. While fans of their pop-anthem roots will still be at home here, “Congratulations,” takes MGMT from being a band whose fame was carried by a couple of accidental hits, to one that can now be taken seriously. This time around, MGMT is not just composed of two artsy college students, but now incorporates the whole live band as well. This makes for a fuller sound than their debut album, which mainly felt like the “VanWyngarden and Goldwasser Show,” rather than a group of serious musicians. A plethora of new sounds and instruments are peppered throughout the album, such as goofy haunted-house-esque organ tones, saxophones, and, of course, a sitar. Although, regardless of how cool the sitar sounds, I find it to be a cliché of psychedelic music.

While I do enjoy the more spacey and obscure turn the band has taken in “Congratulations,” I feel as though not all the tracks mesh well together to create a cohesive album. The album starts out with “It’s Working,” a quirky throwback to the indie bands of the 80s like “The Smiths,” and “Echo & the Bunnymen.” It establishes the album at a comfortable pace and transitions nicely into the following song.

The next track, “Song for Dan Treacy,” sounds like the more poppy, less punky little brother of a Gang of Four”song, complete with a catchy bass line and a playful beat. Soon after, the ‘60s haunted mansion organ kicks in, which is confusing but somehow works with the feel of the song.

The album then winds down and down and down until warping the listener into a dreamy Flaming Lips-like landscape titled, “Someone’s Missing.” The subsequent “Flash Delirium” is the strongest song, taunting the listener with what might just be a hit. Phew! MGMT, you are teetering on the precipice of failing what I think is your mission of “no hit singles” this time around.

From “Flash Delirium” on, the album begins to dwindle into a somewhat ponderous psychedelic breakdown, which the more energetic first half unfortunately overshadows. “I Found a Whistle” lacks the drive of earlier tracks, “Siberian Breaks” feels boring and uninspired, “Brian Eno” suddenly ramps up the tempo and therefore feels strange in its placement, “Lady Dada’s Nightmare” is a frivolous instrumental, and “Congratulations” provides a decent conclusion to the album.

Congratulations is a gamble on MGMT’s part. Making the decision to conceive an album that may not meet the expectations of the fans is a huge risk on their part and I wholeheartedly respect that. Most bands would’ve taken this sudden explosion of success and use it for evil, churning out a couple more hit singles, crashing, burning, and then falling off the face of the earth. MGMT chose to make the effort to expand and mature their sound, now potentially opening themselves up to crowds other than art school hypebeasts and teens like me. I first felt as though MGMT would be just a fad, carried over pop culture’s shoulder. While “Congratulations” is by no means a fantastic album, it may increase MGMT’s longevity in the ever fluctuating world of musical relevance. That is unless they decide to collaborate with Gucci Mane on their next album.

As much as I enjoy the majority of this album, the more I listen to it, I feel as though VanWyngarden and Goldwasser used all the money they earned from their previous efforts, bought every instrument and effects pedal in Guitar Center, and tried to fit all of it in one album. The result is an orgy of sound, but not necessarily in a good way. It’s a bit more muddled than “Oracular Spectacular,” a tad weirder, and far more psychedelic. Congratulations is definitely the album that separates the diehard MGMT fan from the one who has “Kids,” “Electric Feel” and “Time to Pretend” on loop. It’s the moment of judgment when the latter is either paralyzed with confusion, wondering where the sequel to “Kids” is, or accepts that the band wants to take a break from being played endlessly on alternative radio stations worldwide. Many will be turned off by this album, and many will appreciate it for what it is. I find it verging on greatness, but it trips and falls short due to its somewhat unfocused approach at times. It’s definitely an album worth picking up if you enjoyed the more psychedelic second half of Oracular Spectacular. Just don’t expect any remix-friendly songs this time around.

Written by Hank Brown. This ariticle originally appeared in the May 2010 issue.