Laura Hoke @tennislala
February 9th ended the 5 year wait for MGMT’s fourth studio album under Columbia Records, Little Dark Age. It’s widely known that accidental rock stars, Ben Goldwasser and Andrew VanWyngarden met their freshman year at Wesleyan College. They bonded over their love of music, developing their relationship by impressing one another making weird noises on their computers. During their Freshman year they wrote “Kids”, a song that will put their kids through college. For over a decade MGMT have remained perennial festival favorites, often being underestimated by festival coordinators and playing to overflowing crowds. Their first studio album, Oracular Spectacular produced their holy trinity of hits on which they’ll dine out for years to come. This also gave them the freedom to be more experimental with their second and third albums, Congratulations and MGMT.
Little Dark Age is the first album the duo have written in their thirties and it finds them blissfully still not taking themselves too seriously. For a band that was founded on experimenting with sounds, it’s not a stretch that they would make a record that’s a love letter to the 80s. It was the decade that College Radio became the tastemaker and ushered in a new British Invasion born of punk rock and fatigue from otherwise vapid airwaves. The decade of excess began with a royal wedding and DeLoreans and ended with the Berlin Wall coming down. Little Dark Age embraces the carefree nature of the decade while addressing serious issues of our time, with of course, tongue firmly planted in cheek. When they began writing the album, they started with the same process as Congratulations and MGMT, as a duo under contract with a major record label, isolating themselves to do a job. During the process, playful visits from friends turned out to be fruitful for the songwriting process. It’s a more “social and collaborative” record. They discovered that the joys of friendship and companionship were productive. Having someone with whom to bounce off ideas saved them from potentially throwing away the good stuff. In the past, the lion’s share of the songwriting has been done by the duo. The first, third and fourth LPs were mixed by Dave Fridmann. This go round they added longtime friend Patrick Wimberly of Chairlift as a Producer as well as writing credits to Ariel Pink, James Richardson (the band’s touring guitarist, keys), Connan Mockasin and Wimberly.
MGMT’s albums are best listened to and considered as a whole. The track compilations are like a perfectly assembled tasting menu, with each course serving a specific purpose and preparing us for the next. If Little Dark Age is a meal, “She Works Out Too Much” is the amuse-bouche. It’s been said that this was a brave choice as an opening track but if you can’t take a joke you probably aren’t going to appreciate the Kings of the Piss Take anyway. While on first listen it sounds like an 80s Jane Fonda type Aerobics video (with backing vocals by Cellars) playing in the background of a Talk Talk song, it’s actually a cunning juxtaposition of a lighthearted lilting tune with lyrics (as in several tracks) tackling current issues. VanWyngarden welcomes us to the shit show that is the Trumpian Dark Age. MGMT gave birth to this album in the time following Trump’s shocking win. That night became a wake up call for younger generations that “liking” and “swiping” were going to give way to adulting. The title track with it’s upbeat, quirky Thomas Dolby-esque syth-pop sound is decidedly goth in mood and in VanWyngarden’s incomparable poetic lyrics. It deals with having to face the scary time ahead…but like if Tears For Fears wrote it. Pair this course with a full bodied Merlot and a Xanax and it’s going to be okay.
Nowhere on the album is the marriage of a lighthearted tune and dark lyrics more evident than on “When You Die.” The tune could find us skipping through a field of poppies in a Disney film while the Pink/VanWyngarden lyrics are decidedly Rated R. I’m getting a Beatles vibe from this and how much fun is it to imagine where the Beatles would’ve gone in the 80’s? I think they might even be laughing with us. This takes us into the Pretty In Pink of the Album, “Me And Michael.” The song was originally written as “Me and My Girl,” but Goldwasser and VanWyngarden decided it was a bit too cheesy. They tell us that there’s no Michael, but come on, we know it’s Molly Ringwald. If you don’t know about the brilliant scheme that went along with the video release on this single, run don’t walk to your search engine. “TSLAMP” is the other half of “She Works Out Too Much” as the album’s commentary on the state of social media. It’s not so much a cautionary tale as it is a mirror. In the 80’s, Gary Neumann was living in Cars, we’re living in our phones. Won’t you visit me please? That segues nicely into the door is always open for “James.” The LSD soaked tribute to friend, touring band multi instrumentalist and guitar god James Richardson, who shares writing credits on “TSLAMP” and “When You’re Small.” Critics and journalists have been scratching their heads at the seemingly random French horn solo on this track, but any stan worth their salt will tell you it’s a nod to Richardson’s achievement on his band instrument in high school. Brb, the authorities are here with a restraining order.
“Days That Got Away,” the almost instrumental palate cleanser initially had me wondering, “Who does this sound like?” and I realized it’s MGMT. It evokes that feeling of floating on water that so many of their songs share. It’s “4th Dimensional Transition” from OS, “Siberian Breaks” from Congratulations, and “Astro-Mancy” or “A Good Sadness” from MGMT. Truly you can find a connection to the water in most of their songs. This leads us into a decidedly strong MGMT sound in the rest of the album. My personal favorite “One Thing Left To Try” sounds like OMD met New Order at the Depeche Mode concert. This song is pure put the top down, crank the Bose to 11 and let the sun shine on your face Bliss! Yaaassss Queen! I do wanna feel alive!! More than that, I wanna hear it live. Recent European dates had all but “Days That Got Away” and “One Thing Left To Try” on the set list. I definitely thought this song was a single and some critics have called it the “Kids” of the album (as I throw myself to the ground). “When You’re Small” also has a decidedly MGMT sound that pulls us back a bit into the 70s as so much of their music has. It’s winding down this perfect dinner with something a little gooey, sticky and sweet. The groovy “Hand It Over” is the Digestif of the album and this Dark Age. This has been a dark time for our country but this final track is the hope that we will take our society back. The soft sweetness still holds a little bit of the contradictory mood of tune and lyrics, but it’s a release that offers a warm afterglow that is most definitely 100% MGMT.
Tickets are still available for MGMT’s shows this weekend at the Riviera Theatre. Grab them quick while they’re still around!