The Jakarta Post
'Little dark age' by MGMT (MGMT/File)
In its fourth and latest release, Little Dark Age, American psych-popper MGMT returns to the compact eclecticism of their breakthrough debut album, Oracular Spectacular ( 2007 ), with satisfying results.
While the pop experimentalism of the two succeeding albums, 2010’s Congratulations and 2013’s MGMT, has been overly exaggerated and maligned unfairly, there is no denying that the new record serves up a more immediate dose of pop goodness. The tracks are direct for the most part, with obvious hooks and a less apparent instrumental experimentalism.
Little Dark Age doesn’t contain any obvious pop hits like “Kids” or “Time to Pretend” like Oracular Spectacular, but the songs here take obvious direction from the simpler electro-indie-rock approach of those tracks.
The sections establish themselves with immediacy, while the psychedelic tones — wooly synthesizer bars, funky keyboard spaces, quirky guitar riffs and ambience — make themselves heard, but without being the center of attention as on MGMT’s second and third albums.
Maybe it’s a sacrifice from the perspective of band members Andrew VanWyngarden and Ben Goldwasser, having to tone down the satisfyingly studio-driven experimentalism, but the simpler arrangements suit them well, putting their pop precision-honed songwriting abilities in front.
Take “Me and Michael”, a sprightly dose of 1980s synth-pop goodness, complete with a driving, pulsating bass that interlocks with retro-esque keys and drums (heavy on the gated reverb, of course), all to serve some heavily 1980s vocals and a delicious chorus. It’s the album’s most streamlined song, with a slightly nostalgic melancholia that makes its way into the album’s melodic sense.
Nowhere is this more obvious than the yesteryear, sunshine breeze of “James”, a rush of piano tinkling and lush vocals delivering 1960s pop melodies against a buzzy, shoegazery bass and ambience.
While MGMT’s catchiest songs have always brushed callback elements against a measured contemporary production, Little Dark Age presents them with a straight face, with confident emotionality without any irony.
The closer, “Hand It Over”, engages similarly at a slower rhythm, while “When You’re Small” brings an acoustic guitar-piano duet without sounding sappy, building itself with the twisty aural nuance of some experimental baroque instrumental that gets weirder as it gets louder.
The polar opposite of the upbeat, 1980s action-TV soundtrack synthpop opener, “She Works Out Too Much”, “Hand It Over” is a compact conclusion to the album.
But not all have abandoned the duo’s experimentalist tendencies.
“When You Die”, co-written by experimental pop-kitsch rocker Ariel Pink, serves up plenty of soundscapes — swirly space drones and echoing orientalized synth flourishes — but they never overtake VanWyngarden’s melodic proclamations.
The title track does the same, engaging with the kind of disco-infused eccentricity of Oracular Spectacular, punchy synth lines hovering alongside a minimalist electronic percussion.
Little Dark Age is also lyrically more direct than anything the duo has released. “Tslamp” rails against smartphone usage, and while the clearer approach sometimes feel a little inconsistent through the record, they result in an overall experience that feels less alienating than anything the duo has released.
There will always be that push and pull between the band’s pop and experimental sides. While MGMT might not always feel comfortable with catchy electro pop, it suits the band very well — for now.