Review: MGMT’s 'Little Dark Age' shows maturity-in-progress

by Habib Sabet | 2/13/18 2:35am

Last Friday, alternative rock band MGMT released “Little Dark Age,” its first album since 2013. With refreshingly catchy psychedelic-pop tracks reminiscent of the group’s first album, “Oracular Spectacular,” “Little Dark Age” also thematically reveals the band’s development. However, the presence of a few severely convoluted and borderline unpleasant tracks prevent the album from truly demonstrating the band’s potential.

Following the commercial success of “Oracular Spectacular” in 2007, MGMT has digressed wildly from the synth-pop that brought it to fame. The band’s last two albums, “Congratulations” and “MGMT,” contain little to none of the mainstream pop melodies and hooks — like “Kids” and “Time to Pretend” — found in the first album. The two albums are immensely experimental, dark and psychedelic.

Though “Congratulations” and “MGMT” were fairly well received (I personally loved them), they were often criticized as an over-intellectualized, almost pretentious reaction to the band’s early mainstream success. Some critiqued Ben Goldwasser and Andrew VanWyngarden for trying to prove to their listeners that they were not just fun-loving college kids who happened upon a few hit singles. This narrative is plausible, especially for a duo of music majors from Wesleyan University, but make no mistake: The albums are bravely exploratory and cerebral, with clear underpinnings in late twentieth-century experimental British progressive rock. One of the tracks on “Congratulations,” “Brian Eno,” is actually named after and pays homage to the British musician of the same name.

“Little Dark Age” represents a definite shift from the dark experimental sound of the previous two albums and a return to the more synth-driven, radio-friendly melodies of MGMT’s first album. From the opening track, the album has listeners tapping and nodding along. “She Works Out Too Much” has an upbeat melody punctuated with phasors and effects that establish the playful synth-heavy mood present throughout the album. The melody of the titular track, “Little Dark Age,” proves much darker than the opening song, but its driving rhythm provides a hypnotic segue into “When You Die,” a track with a spritely melody that impressively layers at least four guitar parts on top of a synth. “Me and Michael,” the fourth track on the album, is an ethereal, bass-driven love song that is simple but elegant.

Although “Little Dark Age” is sonically much more similar to “Oracular Spectacular,” MGMT does not do a complete reversal and departure from its style in “Congratulations” and “MGMT.” In a certain way, the new album maintains the cerebral, anti-commercial feel of the band’s previous two albums. Although I wouldn’t go so far as to call “Little Dark Age” a concept album, a definitive theme pervades much of the work: disgust with modern technology addiction and social media and a subsequent loss of true personal connection that — as the album’s name hints at — has left us in a “Dark Age.”

From the outset, the album laments the way technology has negatively impacted our lives. “She Works Out Too Much” entertainingly points out the insidious nature of dating apps and their effect on people’s self-perception and esteem by breeding an obsession with appearance. The track opens by mocking the bubbly nature of personal trainers or possibly spin-class leaders, as a grotesquely peppy voice announces, “Get ready to have some fun!/ Alright here we go!” Lines like “I’m constantly swiping it, tapping/ It’s not that relaxing” and “The only reason we never worked out was/ He didn’t work out/ (He’s trying)” depict dialogue to the listener between the singer and a past lover. Through those lines, the band seems to denounce the impossible expectations imparted on dating app users. Goldwasser and VanWyngarden’s expression of their frustration with technology, however, can at times be fairly ham-fisted. The track “TSLAMP,” which is apparently short for “Time Spent Looking at My Phone,” doesn’t provide a very nuanced presentation of the band’s opinion on cell phones, with lyrics like “I try to pull the curtains back/ Turn you off, can’t be touched/ When all I want and all I know/ Is time spent looking at my phone.” Despite such disappointing moments in the album’s lyrics, the thematic coherence of much of the album provides another level of enjoyment. The duo gives a relatable and mostly entertaining criticism of the ubiquity of technology, revealing the impressive development that took place during its experimental and non-mainstream phase.

“Little Dark Age” takes an odd turn after “TSLAMP,” as the playful synth-driven mode of the album’s first half is replaced with pounding rhythms and melodies impossibly convoluted by phasors and effects. MGMT overindulges in microtonal experimentation in “Days That Got Away,” a nearly five-minute long track overblown with effects and devoid of vocals, excluding an occasional distant blurt of the lyric “Days that got away.” The slow airy track “When You’re Small” provides a nice moment of relief from the aggressive and obtuse use of effects, but it mainly just casts into light the over-production of the other songs surrounding it.

Ironically enough, an album decrying our reliance on technology is ultimately somewhat tainted by an excessive use of phasors, microtones and futuristic effects. The departure from the simple, enjoyable melodies driven by synths and guitars prevents “Little Dark Age” from achieving its potential as an artful synthesis of MGMT’s two styles of synth-pop and progressive, experimental rock. Perhaps, more charitably read, the slight nosedive the album takes can be seen as an intentional portrayal of what seems to be the album’s thesis: The ubiquity of aggressive futuristic sounds in several tracks perfectly illustrates how destructive technology can be. In any case, this otherwise enjoyable album is slightly muddled by a few songs that I’ll invariably skip each time I choose to listen to “Little Dark Age.”