It’s been five years since the last MGMT album, but you could be forgiven for thinking it has actually been eight, or even a decade. There’s has unfortunately been one of those careers of diminishing returns. Their début album, Oracular Spectacular, was a bit of a phenomenon. I’ve seen a lot of people mentioning those early, big hits when discussing this record: ‘Kids’, ‘Time To Pretend’, ‘Electric Feel’. Their first album had such an impact that it has cast the longest of shadows. I remember going to house parties in 2008 where, instead of a DJ, people would just put Oracular Spectacular on repeat, and people would get drunk and dance and singalong to it all night. The hits got so many sync placements, were covered and sampled so often, they started to get tiresome. The follow up, Congratulations, is criminally underrated. It has some great stuff on it, but it lacks the all pervading cool that the debut is seeped in. Perhaps in reaction to the lacklustre reception to the follow up, MGMT came along a few years later, and it’s a bit weird and inaccessible – if it’s designed to reward repeated listens I’m afraid I must confess I never got there.
Now, just over ten years on, the band – which should really be boiled down to the songwriting duo of Andrew Van Wyngarden and Ben Goldwasser – have returned with what’s being hailed by many as a return to form. I really wanted to jump on the bandwagon and champion this record but, if you’re hoping they’ve recaptured the electric feels of their debut, this is certainly not that. Little Dark Age is certainly a bold and bombastic record. More than anything they’ve released it is dominated by synthetic sounds and textures, with a highly detailed production style, with everything souped up to the max. If Oracular Spectacular was an update on the flower-power psychedelia of 60s and 70s hippy pop, then Little Dark Age is doing the same for the coked-up, shoulder-pad wearing brokers and bimbos at the height of 80s excess. It’s not without its charm, and it certainly has a sense of humour, but it comes across as more cynical, sarcastic, desperate, and self-aware.
There’s an irony in the fact that Goldwasser and Van Wyngarden thought people were joking when the first label interest came in for their project. Those early songs about becoming world conquering rock stars and enjoying the spoils were supposed to be a joke. Now the band are still joking, but it feels much more serious, even if it’s just as much of a pastiche, it now feels cold and calculated. The lack of optimism is a bit of a turn-off, but perhaps it’s a sign of the times. The songwriting duo live on separate coasts, crafting this album in e-mail exchanges, leaving assembly to be completed by an intermediary: Beyonce producer Patrick Wimberly. The band have also discussed the election of Donald Trump as an influence on the record, seeing this as a wake-up call to themselves, and all Americans, in regard to their position in the world, perhaps summed up by the opening lines of ‘When You Die’: “I’m not that nice/I’m mean and I’m evil/Don’t call me nice/I’m gonna eat your heart out”. The song sounds like a marriage between ‘China Girl’-era Bowie and ELO’s ‘Mr. Blue Sky’. It’s one of the stronger cuts on the album, skilfully produced, like much of the album – but it’s undeniably depressed at its core and that’s never going to resonate as well as hedonistic optimism, although, perhaps, the lesson here is how unsustainable that was.
‘Me And Michael’ sounds reminiscent of Stock, Aitken, and Waterman’s hit parade, but instead of a soap star singing about an imaginary break-up, the lyric seems to be about a pair who continue, bound together, despite falling out. Maybe I’m reading too much into it, but it could be a metaphor for Goldwasser and Van Wyngarden, who barely talk, but are arguably writing their strongest material in years. There are times when the world-weary but witty observations really strike gold – opening track ‘She Works Out Too Much’ lambasts a culture obsessed with perfect bodies, with a lyric about a girlfriend who is too gym obsessed, whose dispassionate voice-over delivers the punchline from her perspective: “The only reason it never worked out is he didn’t work out enough”. ‘TSLAMP’ covers the modern obsession with mobile phones, a specified addiction which is undoubtedly not far-off being certified as a genuine psychological condition.
The last couple of tracks on the album draw us closest to the feel of their glory days – or at least sound like the same band, looking back. They take a step away from the 80s hyper-production, and give us some mournful ballads. Classic songwriting that doesn’t need such dense studio work, although I must admit ‘When You’re Small’ does reach for the kitchen sink quite effectively in its outro. However, ‘Hand It Over’ is the real triumph of the record, it’s resigned and sad, but it also manages to be uplifting, especially in the way it uses those call and response girl-group backing vocals. Little Dark Age finds a pessimistic MGMT, bummed out by the troubles of modern day America. Its upbeat moments feel artificially fuelled, its introspection borders on self-loathing. Having said that it still somehow seems like a step in the right direction, even if it’s one that leaves you with a headache and sense of existential dread the morning after.