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ISSUE 22 | Reviews: MGMT’s Congratulations by 20watts

MGMT's Congratulations: ""

Part of our Issue 22 coverage!
WE GIVE IT: 12/20 Watts
PREVIEW: CLICK here for MGMT‘s website

MGMT have been pretty open about what their latest release aims to be: a retort against their success. By doing so, they take their place alongside practically all the bands in pop-music history, groups career-fated by the critical litmus test of What Comes after the Big Single(s). In their own particular situation, MGMT’s radical shift is somewhat reminiscent of Radiohead’s – not just in the sense of changing sounds drastically after the breakthrough album, but in the sense of changing at the start of a new decade.

The bands share the dilemma of having been popular halfway-through one era, only to find themselves precariously uncertain about how to kick off another. MGMT are certainly not timid when it comes to taking a drastic detour in sound, but their boldness does not automatically equal innovation – or even likeability.

Opening track “It’s Working” contains spacey, reverb-happy guitar riffs and vocals that transcend a decade or two in terms of their harmonic tendencies. Most of the songs on the album contain strong retrosensibilities in regards to sound, combining equal parts “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite” psychedelia with the spacey-ness of Bossanova-era Pixies, occasionally evoking the candy-colored tones of the Beach Boys. With faster songs like “Song for Dan Treacy,” the band literally sounds just as wacky as the album’s hallucinogenic artwork looks.

Many songs have the character of a locomotive in a silent movie – frantic, sudden, with a cartoonish sense of impending doom. The chord structures of tracks like “Brian Eno,” could very well be the background music for a classic Scooby-Doo chase scene, with psychedelic nods that would make Timothy Leary proud. The penultimate “Lady Dada’s Nightmare” is an instrumental voyage that feels as though it should have a Cirque du Soleil dance number choreographed to it, or at least something involving figure skating.

The good thing is that this sound works for MGMT – they do not feel like a band attempting to squeeze their way into a style that would be better left for someone else. There’s definitely a consistent aesthetic at work in Congratulations, but the problem is that it’s a little too consistent. Though the band explores new territory, the territory itself is fairly homogenous and doesn’t yield much in the way of variety. Take the twelve-minute “Siberian Breaks,” for example. An interesting stab at a longer, prog-y epic, it doesn’t sound that different from anything else on the album. Additionally, it lacks the dynamic variety and stylistic variations that such an epic-length track demands, and the track’s duration in relation to its variation feels unwarranted.

Title track “Congratulations” is perhaps the album’s biggest throwback to ye olde MGMT, featuring a poppy chord progression and a sprinkling of synth atop the mix. In this sense though, the song lacks the infectiously unique hook of “Time to Pretend.” While the track undoubtedly works in favor of single appeal, it does not have the kind of auditory auteurship that sets it apart from anyone else in MGMT’s field today. Any indie band could have written “Congratulations” and no one would know the difference. Though its been said that this album lacks an “Electric Feel” or “Kids,” what is the closing track if not that? The song’s cheapened pop sensibility will keep the album in enough peoples’ iTunes libraries, but its appeal makes the album passable the same way cramming a few lone facts makes an exam passable. For casual fans who only ever listened to MGMT’s hits, “Congratulations,” will quench their thirsts for something easy, repeatable and uninspired. But for those with higher expectations for the album as a whole, they will find themselves challenged by a new voice that is as thorough in its sound as it will be polarizing to the audience.

Congratulations is competently thorough and consistent in its voice. The issue is that thoroughness alone isn’t enough to deliver anything exceptional — especially with a group that proved exceptional just a year ago. From a more cynical outlook, the album musically defies the message of “Time to Pretend.” MGMT did not die out young while at their prime – they have slipped into the routine of their professional lives as musicians, and are now waking up for the daily commute, competent, but not exactly standing out from the crowd in any notable way. How they continue to mature past this point is up to them.

BY Dan Powell

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