It’s been ten years since MGMT’s debut Oracular Spectacular. Ten years since their big three singles, (“Time to Pretend”, “Electric Feel” and “Kids”) songs they apparently made to mock pop music, dominated the airwaves and defined the year that was 2008 and beyond. Ten years which MGMT’s two main members (Andrew VanWyngarden and Ben Goldwasser) have spent the better part of doing their best to distance themselves from and sabotage their own commercial success. First with 2010’s Congratulations, a much denser and more progressive psychedelic effort, and then with 2013’s murky and sometimes impenetrable self-titled, which was largely panned and cut the band’s audience down even further. Self-sabotage was only going to get them so far. With a dwindling fanbase and their legacy in the mainstream still overshadowed by their big three singles, MGMT took prolonged leave before gracing us with their next effort.
The first taste of Little Dark Age came in the form of its title track. Their first proper release in over four years, the song signalled a new beginning for MGMT. Coming towards the tail end of a year that was, for many, dominated by times of turmoil and injustice, the song offers MGMT’s own reflection of the tension and unease of our times. Featuring a dramatic synth-led instrumental, heavily indebted to 80s synthpop, it makes for a microcosmic view of the little dark age we are living in, through oblique and surreal phrasings. The creeping verses, with VanWyngarden’s vocals given a ghostly reverb over slightly phased, droopy keyboards, contrasts with the explosive choruses that open up a dark, negative energy as the synths become richer and more rhythmic. The band opt to only repeat the chorus once each time, holding it back from fully unfurling itself until the very outro, when it is given the space to really reveal itself. Lyrically, the song offers clever but dark and surreal turns of phrase (“I grieve in stereo”) and ominous lines, perhaps the most telling being “the humour’s not the same; coming from denial”. As a lead single, it sounded out an ominous warning and set the tone for what was shaping up to be a dark piece of work.
However, MGMT throw a curveball with the album’s unusual opener. Instead of the anthemic title track, they opt for the quirky “She Works Out Too Much”, a song laced with an element of novelty as suggested by the title. Here, MGMT enlist the creative input of schizophrenic pop genius Ariel Pink, who contributes on keyboards, and his influence is certainly felt, with the song resembling some of his more novel early lo-fi material. Opening with sticky, vintage keyboards, the song sets the tone for the prevalent 80s-drenched sound of the majority of the album, with a hazy and confusing feel. The novelty aspect comes through with the clips of an exercise instruction tape, delivered by Allene Norton of Cellars, giving it a humorous leaning. These are interspersed with the skeletal verses, which come with allusions to the internet affecting the way relationships are conducted, (“sick of liking your selfies”; “I’m constantly swiping and tapping”) while the vocals are delivered in a digitally effected low-key manner, giving the narrator a detached quality. The song opens up for a spacey chorus, with the keyboards reaching for a higher register, before being rounded out by a free-wheeling sax solo. The band took a risk opening the album with this song, but it pays off, as it sets up the album’s more light-hearted and bittersweet tone very well. Pink is also credited with co-writing and plays guitar on “When You Die”, the album’s second single. While much of this album is dominated by 80s-indebted synthpop, this song looks more to the 70s, with a more crisp and organic sound. A deliciously twisted pop song, it has a cursed and doomed feel, partly thanks to the slightly off-sounding acoustic guitar, but mainly through the lyrics. The lyrics are very Ariel Pink, with line after line of hateful retorts, including “I’m gonna eat your heart out” and especially “go fuck yourself”, the latter emphasised all the more with the fade-in effect right before it. It incorporates a breakdown that envisions death itself, like falling through nothingness, with ominous laughter all around. It is, all in all, a disturbing and surreal, but fun song. A song for being angry at yourself and taking it out on everyone else.
The curiously titled “TSLAMP” (an acronym for “Time Spent Looking at My Phone”) is another song that lampoons the increasing prevalence of, and dependence on, technology and the way it has changed communication between people. Over a funky shuffle of a beat and moody keyboards, the song tells a tale of unrequited love or romance in the digital age, with mundane and anxious verses giving way to the pretty, melodramatic choruses, which express memories of simpler times, and a longing to escape from the technological addiction, preferably with the individual of his affections.
“Me and Michael”, the album’s huge final single, stands as its most overt love letter to the 80s. Taking heavily from the New Romantic movement of that decade, the song is filled with a heavy sense of nostalgia, driven by booming, gated drums, sparkling synths and dreamy guitar lines. Though lyrically somewhat vague, it suggests a sense of reminiscence for the past, with vivid lines like “imaginary bombs raining down from the clouds” standing out. A song like this runs the risk of coming off simply as a cheesy genre pastiche, but it thankfully avoids doing that, because it really comes off as heartfelt and the band is convincingly sincere in conveying the feeling and sentiment of the song. Even a line that may at first seem dodgy, or cheapen the song’s impact, like “solid as they come”, fits in well. It all compounds on the song’s big sing-along chorus, complete with soaring “whoa oh” vocals. “James”, the other song featuring a name, is on the whole a more low-key and mysterious tune. Apparently made as a heartfelt dedication to the band’s touring member James Richardson, it does indeed feature very affectionate and comforting lyrics, sometimes bordering on the obscene (referring to James as “my little doll”). But a sour second chord in the verses, as well as a strange distorted horn lend the song a mysterious feeling, something like the night time, before Richardson himself comes in with a French horn solo. Though it is a slightly mysterious and off-kilter song, it does have an overall sense of warmth and optimism, especially with its rich baritone vocals (again recalling Ariel Pink) and some very pretty touches of piano. “Days That Got Away” which follows, is a dreamy and spacey almost-instrumental. Though a transitional piece, it holds up well as its own song, with a firm bassline keeping it grounded as extensive sound effects and robotic vocals circle around, giving the impression of a spaceship crawling slowly through the galaxy.
Another of the album’s heavily 80s-indebted songs comes in the form of “One Thing Left to Try”. With big booming drums, bright synths and perky synth bass, the song is one of the most uplifting on the album. Youthful, higher-register vocals propel its optimistic and life-affirming message of making the most of your time and taking action, to avoid regret. The song may be the most immediate on the album and though it may offer less of a reward on repeated listens, its undeniable and infectious energy more than make up for it. It is a final burst of energy before the album takes us into its night time with the final two songs. “When You’re Small” is the comedown before the end and more of a nod to 70s psychedelia than the majority of the album. It may also be the single call-back to the band’s earlier sound – it would not sound out of place on Congratulations. With a slow and patient tempo, gentle rose-coloured electric guitars and crisp acoustic ones, the song has a stately and dreamy night time sound. It resembles something of a fairy tale, which is reinforced in its surreal but child-like lyrics and rhymes. Even a line like “when you’re small, you’re not very big at all” can be forgiven as it fits well with the song’s overall feel. When the strings enter and stay for the final chorus, it lends the song even more of a feeling of a dark wonder – as a fairy tale goes, it is hardly an optimistic one, but one that seems to acknowledge and accept the evil of the world. And finally, this leads us into the album’s laid-back closer, “Hand It Over”. Apparently written in the wake of Trump’s presidency, reflected clearly in its opening like, (“The deals we made to shake things up and the rights that they abused; might just fuck us over”) the song is hardly one of the album’s most spectacular musically, with a sluggish, slightly plodding beat and dreamy waves of synths. This gives it a very resigned feeling, resignation to the fact that all the evil and injustice may just be out of our hands, though it comes with a small amount of acceptance too, that there are some things we just can’t control. It makes for a pessimistic end to the album, like the wool being pulled over our eyes as we give ourselves over to “the system” or the last blissful moments of a life as darkness and death take hold.
With Little Dark Age, MGMT offer their most refined and balanced work, and perhaps their best album to date. Even if their legacy is still defined by those same three singles, (though who’s to say a song like “Me and Michael” can’t replace them?) it no longer matters. MGMT have come into their own and perhaps for the first time since their early years, are making music on their own terms. They are not out to impress anyone, but more importantly, they are no longer actively trying to alienate their own fan base, striking a great balance between pop songwriting and experimentation. An album like this would probably not have felt the same had they, say, released it following Oracular Spectacular. There is the sense that they had to go through all that confusion to arrive at this album. And after all those years, an album like this feels earned.