MGMT – Little Dark Age (2018)

As I was absent from music reviewing for most of the early part of the year, I wanted to go back and review a bunch of the albums that have come out to this point in 2018 that I enjoyed. I feel that 2018 is setting up to be the best year for music this decade so far, and I’d like to share some of my thoughts about some of the albums from this year that support that claim. Expect a bunch of high-scoring reviews to come. I’ve also never actually reviewed albums so far after their release date (apart from some of my all-time favorites), and I’ve learned that revisiting albums I listened to a bunch at release a few months later reveals a lot I missed early on. Anyway…

MGMT was an adolescent favorite of mine. Oracular Spectacular in particular was a musical staple of my teenage years, and my play-counts for songs like “Time to Pretend” and “Kids” probably number in the several hundreds. I enjoyed their sophomore album Congratulations as well but found it a bit too psychedelic for my liking, and after poor reviews came in for their third self-titled album, I skipped it completely. I’ve since gone back and listened to a handful of songs from that album, but I had firmly planted MGMT into the late 2000s indie pop one-and-done musical sphere along with the plethora of other bands making similar music at that time.

However, it was immediately upon the release of the “Little Dark Age” single late in 2017 where I knew something had changed. This immediately infectious dark synthpop jam hooked me with its catchy sound and progression, magnificent abstract and surreal lyrics, and strange, dreamlike, and hypnagogic production. “Little Dark Age” became the perfect single for the album, which shares all of the same strengths. Little Dark Age is at first listen a wonderfully produced and catchy synthpop album. On multiple listens, the fantastic songwriting and theme reveal itself and it is there that MGMT show their true evolution. Even in the past, part of the appeal of MGMT was the songwriting. Songs like “Time to Pretend” and “Kids” hid self-aware themes under infectious melodies and glowing synths. However, Oracular Spectacular was clearly written from the perspective of adolescence, and at times the longing and nostalgia of that album felt borne from the comedown of a drug trip, rather than a deeper human emotion. Little Dark Age is MGMT matured.

Little Dark Age at its songwriting core explores the joys, the lamentations, the banalities, and the confusions of living as a young adult in 2018. Whether Andrew VanWyngarden sings about a relationship that just wasn’t meant to be in “She Works Out Too Much”, explores the value of friendship in “Me and Michael” and “James”, or even plays with existentialism in “Little Dark Age”, the songwriting succeeds because he brings a sense of balanced ambiguity to his lyrics. “She Works Out Too Much’ and “When You Die” are some of the best examples of this. The former is such an enjoyable song to listen to because it doesn’t demand a certain emotion out of the listener. The song tells a story of a relationship that failed essentially because the two parties disagreed on a basic issue – she worked out too much, he didn’t work out at all. The song itself doesn’t expect the listener to feel a certain way either: it’s a fast-paced, ambiguous yet incredibly catchy track. “When You Die” is a track so rooted in reality that it’s actually laugh-out-loud funny. Following the internal monologue of someone infuriated out how he’s always described as being “nice”, we get to hear the back and forth of what is going on in his head (“GO FUCK YOURSELF!”) versus what he actually says (“Don’t you have somewhere to be at 7:30?”). It’s a fantastic track, and a great example of what makes the lyrics in this album great.

At times, I feel that line-by-line analyzing lyrics in an album or song can be a bit like trying to explain a joke – you lose a lot of the charm by the time you’re done. I don’t want to spoil most of the tracks on here. They’ve almost all got similarly enjoyable stories and one-liners but truly the satisfaction in the songwriting really comes from just how mundane some of these moments MGMT has chosen to write about are. In that way, they’re every-day experiences that are relatable to the listener just like a good story or good joke should be. It is really this presentation of these stories that make them so funny, or strange, or surreal. We clearly have plenty of songs about break-ups or the joy of a great friendship – but MGMT really spins these stories in a refreshing way.

Nonetheless, Little Dark Age is a pop album. I wanted to discuss the songwriting first, but by no means is this album lacking in catchiness or melody. Most of the tracks here are absolute earworms – even just listening to the first half of some of these songs will have them stuck in my head the rest of the day. The melodies here are incredibly well written, and most of the songs feature a tremendous chorus or climax that absolutely make the song. In addition, there is a lot of sonic diversity that keeps the album fresh. “Little Dark Age” is a dark synthpop banger not unlike something Depeche Mode might have written had they been making music in 2018. “When You Die” has a lot of 60s psychedelic pop influence. “Me and Michael” is an 80s new romantic inspired jam. “James” is as much an ode to this “James” himself as it is to Ariel Pink. “One Thing Left To Try”, one of my favorite later tracks in the album almost sounds like a space disco track, especially in the way that the vocals seem pitched up to almost androgyny. These songs are just awesome pop songs that all sound different and fresh. Each of them has a few moments that I absolutely adore. The climax in the title track is legendary and a highlight of the year for sure, but I also love the joyous chorus of “Me and Michael” and the back and forth vocals in “James”. I can’t get enough of my favorites off this album.

The production on this album ties each of these sonically and lyrically different tracks together, and it’s perfectly fitting for the ambiguity of the album. MGMT have always enjoyed muddling their music and vocals in a bit of noise, but on Little Dark Age this stylistic choice feels purposeful and necessary for the first time. It’s not a noisy album, but each of the songs feels hazy like its a vision from the past. Still, the album is still mixed beautifully and each sound has been perfectly crafted. With beating drums, glowing and varied synths, and hazy vocals, Little Dark Age is a pleasant listen in the most literal sense. Great production, mixing, and mastering is a bit like good refereeing: you notice it most when it’s absent.  It’s not exactly the most exciting point about this album, but I’d be remiss not to mention it.

I’m sure at this point it’s evident to the reader that’s reading along with the tracklist in hand where my (few) gripes about this album are. As the primary strengths of this album are how well-written and catchy the songs themselves are, the tracks I don’t love here are either poorly written or a bit unexciting of a listen compared to the highlights. One of the best examples of this is “TSLAMP”. I know this is a favorite track for many, but from my perspective all of the balance and ambiguity written into the best tracks on Little Dark Age is lost in this track and replaced by a heavy-handed and one-dimensional message. On the first listen the song is fun, but after a few listens it wears off quickly. The fact that MGMT felt compelled to hide the name of the song behind an acronym almost points to me the fact that they knew they were going to get exactly one chance to surprise the listener with the message of the song. If it were named “Time Spent Looking At My Phone” I probably wouldn’t have even enjoyed the song once.

On the other hand, the final two tracks “When You’re Small” and “Hand It Over” are well written lyrically, but they are rather plodding psychedelic pop tracks that don’t really develop or excite me. These songs aren’t necessarily bad, but compared to tracks like “She Works Out Too Much” where it’s hard to know what might come even in the next 10 seconds of the track, the final two tracks on this album play rather predictably and safely. “Hand It Over” was a single from the album and I liked it when it released, but it just doesn’t grab me the same way as the other tracks on this album now. Unfortunately, the fact that these two tracks close the album out means Little Dark Age does fizzle out a bit, which is exacerbated by how explosively it opens.

Still, Little Dark Age is not only a return to form for MGMT, but it’s an absolute evolution for the group. There are a few tracks that I think pale in comparison to the highlights, but that might just be because the highlights are so high. Combining surreal, well-written, and at times genuinely hilarious lyrics with varied, catchy, and catchy pop songs, Little Dark Age is a wonderful pop album and clearly a year highlight. Don’t miss this one.

8/10

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