In retrospect, there was little that would have predicted the enormous reach of MGMT. The American duo exploded onto the scene in 2007 with Oracular Spectacular, an electropop tour de force that artists have continued to bite from a decade later. Oracular paved the way for the cheerful indie bands of later years, like Grouplove and Passion Pit, and that sound influenced a whole range of genres. Frank Ocean covered them; so did Katy Perry.
That debut is still their defining album, propelled by the popularity of its singles. Nearly every millennial will recognize the simple bass line of “Electric Feel,” the dance-party-ready “Kids,” the exuberant opening chords on “Time to Pretend.” If that was your last point of contact with the band, their newest, Little Dark Age, will surprise with its subtler soundscape. The huge choruses and high pitched vocals of their earlier years are absent, replaced by more fully formed, impressionistic productions. They sound closer to their ’80s electropop predecessors — New Order, Kraftwerk, Depeche Mode — than ever before.
The title track was their first single, released back in Oct., and it immediately signaled a shift. The track starts quietly, then builds into a dark march of a chorus. There is a clear goth lineage here, with distant and moody vocals delivering statements of hazy disaffection like “Breathing in the dark” and “I grieve in stereo.” Suddenly that Bauhaus cover they did back in 2011 makes a lot of sense. MGMT have always written sad songs; they’ve just covered them up with a lot of excited synths. On “Little Dark Age,” their production matches their brooding mood exactly. The effect is one of the best singles released by the band since their debut, and a clear stand out on the album. They’re not a totally new band — just more matured, growing into themselves.
In reality, MGMT never wanted to be pop. They were aiming for the more experimental and ambient (hell, they have a song called “Brian Eno”), but they didn’t quite succeed, and so ended up with a huge commercial success on their hands. They’ve thankfully realized that ’80s revival is more their game. You can hear this on the opener, “She Works Out Too Much,” a slightly creepy track about a couple obsessed with working out on which the band literally welcomes us to the “shitshow” in verse two — “Grab a comfortable seat,” they add.
It’s not all gloom. “Me and Michael” is a flirty track about friendship so powerful it reaches the romantic, and with its driving bass, pretty synth lines and ecstatic chorus, it’s one of the most addicting on the album, and a clear reference to their synth-pop influencers. It would be quite at home on a Walkman.
There are moments on this album which become tiring, and it can be a bit repetitive. By “James,” there’s a sense that a different sound is needed to cleanse the palette, but they don’t reach that sound until the closer, “Hand It Over,” a slow-moving love song that recalls Tame Impala in their more pensive moments. On the flip side, they’ve created one of their most cohesive works in probably a decade. That synth-pop is currently having a huge resurgence means that MGMT are once again at the right place at the right time. And all the while, they’re still just doing them.