Imagine playing hide-and-seek with a poacher and rhinoceros in the African grasslands.
MGMT creates random moments like this within each song of its third, self-titled album. They are lonely, tense and, above all, complicated. A mesh of the duo’s first two releases, “MGMT” covers all forms of psychedelic rock, past and present, but still includes motifs that keep the collection of songs cohesive.
Bands that have experimented with cosmic, retro guitar music in the past five years haven’t found acclaim. Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros released three albums that fit this description from 2009 to 2013, and each one was written off as drawn-out and boring.
MGMT’s last project, “Congratulations,” saw Benjamin Goldwasser and Andrew VanWyngarden shift from crafting indie pop hits like “Kids” to acid-tinged, Pink Floyd-esque cuts that failed to find success. This left many to ask a simple question: Why do this again?
Quite simply, it’s better this time around.
Track one, “Alien Days,” features a perfect amount of trippy organs and acoustic goodness. In fact, the sing-along beginning feels more like Mick Jagger than Syd Barret, and that’s what guides this album. “MGMT” is catchy with numerous sounds drifting in the background, but a majority of the tracks have purpose, so nothing is wasted.
With “A Good Sadness,” you watch a loved one leave for better prospects. Yes, you understand the departure means more brightness in their future, but still, your lip quivers. The sudden synths that come halfway through the song act as jolts of sorrow as the car you watch disappears down the highway.
“MGMT” includes numerous short stories—not just songs—and that is a stark difference from MGMT’s last attempt at mind-bending space rock.
Still, as always, MGMT’s strangeness overpowers all sincerity.
Even without its demented music video, “Your Life is a Lie” sounds zany, with organic chimes packed between robotic notes that eventually go haywire and sound like R2-D2 doused with water during the instrumental break. This song splits the album, the loud songs before and the melancholy ones after, and that adds to the apparent guidance “Congratulations” lacked. “MGMT” is like a short double album.
In addition, this isn’t just an impersonation of ‘60s rock gods like Pink Floyd and The Rolling Stones. The aforementioned “Alien Days” has its fill of Jagger-like moments but could also compare with ‘80s pop, like Phil Collins—if he recorded on Saturn, that is. This quality keeps MGMT’s latest work different from the likes of contemporaries Foxygen and King Tuff, who both live and die with sounds from four decades ago.
Toward the album’s close, “Plenty of Girls in the Sea” fades in, and a certain line grabbed me: “The trick is to try to stay free.” MGMT is, for the most part, free from the grasp of an over-involved record label or fan base that tries calculating the band’s every move, but it may fall victim to one thing: ambition. Goldwasser and VanWyngarden seek snippets of sound, rather than long instrumentals, to act as the basis of their tunes, and this seems like a miserable process.
Music makes MGMT, not vice versa.
Take the film “Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story” for example, when Cox (John C. Reilly) grows tired of making the simplistic chart-toppers he once formulated with ease. In a studio filled with musicians playing hundreds of sounds barely audible (an obvious ode to The Beach Boys or The Beatles), Cox tries recording an album so momentous that it transcends music, but his motivations fail him.
MGMT doesn’t fail with “MGMT,” but I can’t imagine listening to the project from the group’s perspective, particularly the more malaise tracks, and wondering what could have changed. Heck, I’m sure Goldwasser and VanWyngarden will analyze the best tracks, “Alien Days” and “Instrospection,” and imagine what small alterations they might brainstorm to make everything more groundbreaking.
Having enjoyed “Congratulations,” an album most people disposed of after a listen or two, I like the ways “MGMT” builds on previous ideas while sounding distinct and different. I may be in the minority, though, and we’ll see if that changes MGMT’s direction from here.
Final Rating: Four out of Five Suns