MGMT: Congratulations (Columbia)
If you’re coming to the second MGMT album because you loved “Time to Pretend”, “Kids”, and “Electric Feel”, there’s the door. No such moments exist on Congratulations. Hell, there aren’t even failed attempts at replicating those songs here. This time out, MGMT aren’t crafting pop; they’re Creating Art. The problem is that many of the half-million or so people who bought their debut, Oracular Spectacular, just want a couple catchy-as-fuck, ear-candy singles to blast in their cars or put on with their friends.
One possible response to Congratulations is that MGMT are having a real “time to pretend” moment– that they’re willfully being weird, and either shrinking from the challenge of repeating their crossover success or clumsily aiming to prove their underground cred. But the simplest answer seems most realistic: MGMT are being themselves. Ben Goldwasser and Andrew VanWyngarden wrote and released “Time to Pretend” and “Kids” way back in 2005. With a major-label contract in hand, they’ve never again written anything so radio-friendly. Instead, they penned the headier and exploratory (and weaker) parts of their debut album with help from go-to bells-and-whistles guy Dave Fridmann. This led to songs called “4th Dimensional Transition” and “Of Moons, Birds & Monsters”. Pastoral English pop, flighty mysticism, and studio-rat arrangements aren’t the exception with this band, they’re the rule.
Now they’ve returned with an album full of that stuff, and the result is audacious, ambitious, and a little fried. Working with Spacemen 3′s Sonic Boom, MGMT have crafted a grandiose but not always clear-eyed record. Instead of the commercial climbers they’re lumped alongside (the Killers, Kings of Leon, Muse), MGMT follow the lead of the Flaming Lips and Beck and prove to be kindred spirits with Of Montreal, Yeasayer, and Klaxons. They’re in love with 1970s art-rock, and they’ve immersed themselves in uncool subgenres like pop-psych and prog. And despite the lack of marquee songs, they’ve made, top to bottom, a more interesting and even better record this time out.
If their success granted them the opportunity to do whatever they wanted, MGMT took advantage of it, layering songs with a surplus of ideas when a few good ones would have done. Every track here has successful passages, but frustratingly, they too often turn out to be detours or trap doors. In general, the less cluttered and more focused their tracks are, the better they turn out. The most satisfying songs are the ballads– the title track in particular, but also “I Found a Whistle”– or the ones like “It’s Working” and “Someone’s Missing” that walk a fairly linear path. The most arduous is the 12-minute “Siberian Breaks”, which has some intriguing elements but little discernible reason to be so densely constructed.
Few bands this year will release a record under more difficult circumstances than MGMT, and following a shock commercial success with a zig when your fans want you to zag has always been dangerous. MGMT aren’t hitting the self-destruct button here, but the best-case scenario is that a cult, happy to shed the carpetbagger fans of OS, are willing to follow these guys around from idea to idea. Some may even use them as an introduction to the bands they’ve namechecked– Spacemen 3, Brian Eno, Television Personalities– and the sounds from which they’ve drawn inspiration. The more likely, short-term result is that MGMT are reined in a bit, not given so much rope to hang themselves. But that they didn’t hang themselves here, given the circumstances, suggests a certain amount of talent. Whether they write club-friendly songs like “Kids” or tracks like “Congratulations” or “Flash Delirium” or “It’s Working”, they can write songs. Hopefully, next time they won’t try to jam two dozen of them onto a nine-track album.
— Scott Plagenhoef, April 12, 2010