Mention the phrase ‘MGMT’ to most people and they may well look blankly at you, some might know the name, and a few might even start humming the opening bars of Kids or Time to Pretend. Either way, it’s undeniable that MGMT dropped almost entirely off the public radar once Oracular Spectacular’s huge initial success finally petered out, but unlike other bands who found success (swiftly followed by obscurity) in the Indie heyday of the mid-2000’s, MGMT’s fall seemed entirely according to Andrew VanWyngarden and Ben Goldwasser’s plans. After revisiting Congratulations and the band’s self-titled release from 2013, it’s clear the dorm-room friends turned chart-topping rock stars felt almost indifferent towards their biggest hits and instead consistently chose to make the music they wanted to make; even if no one else seemed interested. However, following the critical and commercial dive that was the self-titled album, the pair moved to opposite ends of the country and for a while it looked as though MGMT might be done for good.
If Little Dark Age’s opener, She Works Out Too Much, says anything it’s that MGMT have not been twiddling their thumbs for the last five years. The track paints a hilarious, almost absurdist picture of this generation’s woes as VanWyngarden sings “Welcome to the shit-show / grab a comfortable seat” over a jaunty synth bass groove and flashes of keyboard tone. Meanwhile the chorus concerns the pitfalls of online dating as a female voice despairs, ‘The only reason it didn’t work out is he didn’t work out’, followed by a robotic voice saying what sounds like ‘destroy’ in the background of the heady mix of vintage synths and drums. It’s a weird and wonderful introduction with a more tongue-in-cheek lyrical style that becomes even more defined on single When You Die, which includes one of the album’s catchiest refrains – “Baby, I’m ready to blow my brains out” – over sunny acoustic guitar chords and warm bass/keyboard interplay. A welcome change, if nothing else, from the deliberately obtuse lyrical imagery of previous albums; the duo seems to have come to terms with the idea that the ridiculous and the artistically integral can also be catchy as hell.
Me and Michael comes on like any classic of the synth-pop heyday of the early 80’s, with echoing snare hits and waves of cool synthesiser chords. Two producers, Dave Fridmann and Patrick Wimberly, worked on the record alongside the band and their own credentials in the indie-pop sphere are firmly on show here; across the board everything sounds pleasantly vintage but bright enough to not sound like an imitation. Speaking of which, James is an Ariel Pink number no-question, right down to VanWyngarden’s put-on baritone, but since the multiple layers of synthesiser melody are so neatly executed, it’s far too much fun to dislike it. Likewise, the title track has more of a goth feeling than anything else on offer here, with analogue synths and electronic drums dominating the instrumental in a Disintegration sort of way, and equally gloomy lyrics from VanWyngarden; “I grieve in stereo / the stereo sounds strange”. TSLAMP (that’s Time Spent Looking At My Phone if you were curious) has some equally disparaging lyrics about screen staring, it’s almost concerning how much the band decry technology in the lyrics of Little Dark Age when there’s certainly no luddism with regards to the instrumentals.
The album loses some momentum after the halfway point with solitary instrumental track Days That Got Away. With keys that are washed out and drums that are equally laid-back, it feels lacking in the way of a good hook that so many other tracks have. One Thing Left To Try is another power-pop inflected track with big synth melodies, and When You’re Small returns to the absurd, yet slightly poignant subject matter of youth/obscurity, with a chorus that proclaims, “When you’re small, you’re not very big at all / when you’re small, you don’t have too far to fall”. Closing the record out, Hand It Over: sounding like the clearest point of inspiration for the band over the last few years, Kevin Parker and Tame Impala. It really could have been a cut on Tame Impala’s Currents from 2015, the gently ebbing chords and distant background vocals calling out, commanding, ‘hand it over’. What, exactly, MGMT intend on handing over is less clear, but what they’ve handed to their fans with Little Dark Age, is a damn good comeback album.
I can’t overstate how heartening it is to see a band that were so much a product of the indie-pop boom of ten or so years ago make such a strong return after a leave of absence I wasn’t sure they’d come back from. In looking back to the sounds of the 80’s, and by looking around at some of the bands that have risen to the top after their own breakthrough into the mainstream, MGMT have found their feet again. The only thing that remains to be asked is where do they go from here? With any luck, to the stratosphere.