james debate
james debate

Thursday 8 March 2018

Genre Synth-pop
Label Columbia
Producers MGMT, Patrick Wimberly, Dave Fridmann

mgmt little dark age time to pretend kids electric feel

The story of MGMT is always an interesting one to tell. The band was thrust into overnight superstardom by their debut album Oracular Spectacular, and in particular by two iconic singles, Time to Pretend and Kids. Yet MGMT has never seemed comfortable with the weight of success.

By all accounts, the two band members Andrew VanWyngarden and Ben Goldwasser despise those hit singles and the superficial, casual fans they brought with them, to the point where they allegedly refuse to play them at their live shows, and mock the audience for wanting to hear them. There’s a line between retaining artistic integrity and selling out commercially, this seems way over that line. And so followed two albums filled with lyrics on the burden of expectation, the dilemma between artistic purpose and commercial success, and general ruminations about the death of creativity. Musically the albums became increasingly inaccessible and abstract, an apparently deliberate move away from the radio-friendly hits for which they had achieved unwelcome fame. Critical response has been mixed. Suffice it to say, the band seemed to be facing something of a crisis of direction.

Now before I make the band seem like pretentious so-and-so's, it is worth noting that they do put their money where their mouth is. Upon suing the French political party UMP for unauthorised use of Kids, citing in particular the party’s artist-antagonistic anti-piracy legislation, MGMT deemed to donate all the proceeds to artists’ rights organizations. MGMT does genuinely seem to be a band that cares about the sanctity of the creative process above all else, for better or worse.

However, five years on from their previous album, MGMT have returned with Little Dark Age, and it seems they have turned a corner. Little Dark Age marks a hard swing back towards more traditional pop; catchy hooks, classically structured melodies, and more varied lyrical subjects. But it would do a disservice to simply suggest that the album is a concerted move towards the mainstream appeal of their successful debut, it’s much better than that. In fact, this is the best album MGMT have yet produced. Oracular Spectacular was known for two excellent songs, but in all honesty is otherwise mostly forgettable. By contrast, Little Dark Age is excellent from start to finish.

The band describe this album as a reaction to the increasingly dark social and political state of the world, with particular reference to the election of Donald Trump. In their own words, “We were more inspired to write pop music after evil took over the world”. The music of Little Dark age strikes a more crowd-pleasing tone to bring a bit of “light” back into the world, but is appropriately permeated throughout by a delicious contrast of chaos and discord.

The album strikes this careful tone right from the start with opening track She Works Out Too Much, a twisted carnival of discordant notes and driving hooks through the dystopian world of modern dating. It’s simultaneously manic and emotionally draining. It’s MGMT at their barmy best.

The key song, however, is title track Little Dark Age. An excellent pop song which harkens back to their original hit Time to Pretend with it’s synth-laden soundscape, and adds a bit of a gothic twist that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Robert Smith album.

Other highlights include the irony-tinged When You Die, and nostalgic throwback Me and Michael. TSLAMP sees MGMT channel classic Pet Shop Boys, while One Thing Left to Try is a dizzying electro-odyssey in the style of Chvrches.

But perhaps the best of the bunch is wistful closer Hand itOver, a gorgeous slow-dancer of a track that puts a psychedelic turn on the kind of 60s pop of which the Beach Boys might have been proud.

Little Dark age is triumphant success then, and an early frontrunner for album of the year. It’s edgy and caustic enough to please MGMT fans, whilst still being packed with catchy and memorable tunes. While its singles are unlikely to achieve the kind of iconic status that Kids and Time to Pretend enjoy, in our view this is the most complete, most mature album the band has put together, and musically the best.

Must Listen :
Little Dark Age
Hand it Over
When You Die
One Thing Left to Try

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