james debate
james debate

Monday 22 March 2010

Genre Psychedelic Rock
Label Sony/Columbia
Producer Pete Kember
Release Date April 13th

mgmt congratulations

Back in November of 2007 I heard a song called Time to Pretend from an as yet completely unknown, but up and coming band from Brooklyn called MGMT. I went out on a limb, and predicted that they were on the verge of making it big in 2008 with their debut album Oracular Spectacular. Sure enough, they were a massive hit, drawing near unanimous critical approval, a large fanbase, and releasing multiple major hit singles. Without a doubt the breakthrough act of 2008.

Now in 2010, it is time for them to release their hotly anticipated second album, Congratulations. The speed of their rise to prominence, as well as the smash success of their two biggest singles, has led many to worry that they may have been a one hit album band, doomed to fade away thereafter as many exciting young bands have done in the past. Quite wisely, MGMT have opted not to simply try and recreate the magic of their first infectiously catchy album, but have stunned fans and critics alike by taking their sophomore effort in a completely different direction.

Oracular Spectacular won over young fans with its heavily electronic effects and sparkling, trippy melodies about youthful exuberance and living on the edge, but Congratulations shuns the mainstream in favour of much more experimental psychedelic rock. In fact everything about this album, and indeed the band in general, seems to be a record label's worst nightmare. MGMT have abandoned their tried and tested sound for something very different, declared that they did not want to release any singles from this album, and in response to the album leaking onto the internet, have kindly put the entire album up for free streaming on their website, stating that they wanted to release the entire thing for free if their label would allow it (this is a band who knows how to endear themselves to their fans). If the label wasn't shit scared enough, they even included an epic 12 minute behemoth of a track on this album with pretty much zero commercial marketability. So it is a great credit to Sony/Columbia that they allowed the band to do this album how they saw fit.

By not simply churning out another Oracular Spectacular they have preemptively dismissed any inevitable questions over staying power that critics may have had and cemented their place as one of the big bands of today. It's paid off too because while this album may not have the makings of a commercial, radio friendly smash hit like their debut album, it has allowed MGMT to showcase just how creative and talented they really are.

The album opens with one of its strongest tracks, It's Working. MGMT announce their return with a fully spaced out track of pure psychedelia that sounds like a cross between 80s era R.E.M. and Blondie on acid, with a modern twist that sounds all their own featuring influences from all sorts of genres and instruments like bongo and electric harpsichord. It's audacious and attention grabbing right from the off, but after a few listens it's hard to deny that it works.

Song for Dan Treacy follows, a decent if unremarkable track. But it is with the third song Someone's Missing that things start to get a bit weird. This shortest track on the album is a dreamy, lo-fi sitar-string addled trip which finishes with an explosive outro.

Flash Delirium is perhaps the weirdest song on a weird album, with no discernable structure or choruses, and just a stew of different ideas and styles whirled into a confusing mess, with a deliriously euphoric climax. This was my first reaction anyway, but after many many listens it's actually starting to grow on me as the method behind the madness becomes clearer and the undeniably catchy individual bits actually start to complement one another in a decadently tongue in cheek fashion that actually harkens back to their debut album. Either that or my brain is just melting.

I Found a Whistle is next, and is one of the most "normal" songs on the album. A gently soothing, faintly folkish number accompanied by simple guitar strums, this is a good song, providing a welcome respite from the intensity of the rest of the album so far. You'll need it too, because up next is the 12 minute epic.

Running at just over 12 minutes Siberian Breaks is a fairly impressive attempt and pleasantly listenable song. Again, it's composed of pretty disjointed sections, transitioning from easy listening lounge, to an almost British sounding spoken word to 80s Ultravox style and a million other sounds that all sound very nice on their own, but don't really fit together into a cohesive song. These kinds of songs have to be epic enough to justify the length, and cohesive to actually work as a single song, a very hard thing to do (though not impossible) and Siberian Breaks just doesn't achieve that. It just sounds like a bunch of different song clips stuck together, however lovely they are, and at no point could I see why this should have been a single epic track. Compare it to the song above, which really could only work as an epic 11 minute trip.

The next song Brian Eno is a fairly silly, if catchy track, one which you might get stuck in your head, but will really piss you off. Lady Dada's Nightmare is a very odd, spiralling instrumental piece that has already won a number of fans on the internet, but for me is just an interesting oddity that I probably will forget about in the next few weeks.

The album then finishes with the simplest song on the album, Congratulations. It seems fitting to end such a bizarre and experimental album with a much more laid back, classically arranged track. It's a relaxing way to wind down from what the band clearly envisage as a package deal, an album to be listened to in a single sitting.

On a final note, this album is a grower. Only It's Working really hit me on the first listen, the rest sounded a bit off to me. However after repeated listens the album as a whole has really grown on me a lot, so give it a chance.

Surprising and daring, Congratulations is ultimately a good album, perhaps an even better, more complete package than Oracular Spectacular. But it's clearly not destined for the same kind of success, and lacks the big hits of the first album. Indeed if you're looking for another Time to Pretend to stick on a playlist you could well go away disappointed, but at the same time that's kind of the point, with MGMT seeking to move away from the mainstream appeal of the first album so as to avoid unwanted comparisons. It will be interesting to see this album divide the MGMT fans into two categories, those who like them because of their catchy pop songs, and those who like them because of their originality and creativity. For me personally, I always appreciate when a band tries to be different and fresh, and in doing so MGMT have proven beyond doubt that they have the talent and staying power to keep producing high quality music for years to come. The future is bright for this band.

Must Listen (No Previews yet):

It's Working
Siberian Breaks
I Found a Whistle
Flash Delirium

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