Fame is a funny thing. For some artists, a life in the limelight is a one-way ticket to self-parody, coupled with a complacent retreat into the ranks of the jet set. For others, fame is a waking nightmare, disaffecting and strange.
Congratulations — a record made in reaction to the sudden, if not disorienting, rise to fame duo Ben Goldwasser and Andrew VanWyngarden enjoyed off the back of 2008’s Oracular Spectacular — shows MGMT falling somewhere in the middle, its love-hate relationship with fame not without a fair dose of alienation.
To say these guys felt pressure in making the album would be an understatement. For VanWyngarden, the thought of descending into artistic irrelevance was enough to trigger panic attacks. And in an attempt to thwart what might have been expected by the mainstream, the group opted to risk estranging the majority of its fanbase with an artier, more patient affair. They wanted to make the “right” album. But at what point does principle take precedence over art?
Expanding upon the more experimental, texture-driven second side of their debut, the group enlisted Peter Kember (better known as Sonic Boom and an ex-member of space-rock act Spacemen 3) to produce anthemic psychedelia in the vein of The Flaming Lips or The Arcade Fire. The result is a skyward extrapolation of British invasion pop akin to The Kinks and The Zombies, eschewing the jagged, lo-fi guitars that defined the genre in favor of dense, layered synths and walls of reverb-soaked vocals.
Between the Scooby Doo-esque farfisa organs, snappy backup vocals, references to British pop musicians and a left-field 12-minute epic (“Siberian Breaks”), it’s clear the band wishes to be viewed as an art-rock outfit and not just a one-trick pop machine. And while much of the experimentation works, it often feels claustrophobic, leaving something to be desired.
Encapsulating the band’s feelings toward the polarizing effects of fame, the title track is an enjoyable tropical hangover with a breezy synth sporadically connecting the dots between chord changes. Acting as a sort of sequel to lead single “Flash Delirium,” it makes for one of the most satisfying moments on the album.
“I Found A Whistle” is reminiscent of Lips’s more wistful, star-gazing ballads, with shiny, churning keyboards surrounding VanWyngarden’s yearning vocals. “Brian Eno” is a frenetic paean to the legendary Talking Heads collaborator and ambient musician, complete with quirky organs and enough blips and bloops to warrant the track’s namesake.
Affirming VanWyngarden’s pleas to experience the album as a whole, Congratulations successfully captures an aesthetic that remains consistent, if not extremely compelling, throughout. But looking at the tracks independently offers a different story: Each offers enough willful weirdness that the album more often than not collapses under its own weight.
To be clear, this is not an album of singles like “Kids” or “Time to Pretend.” If anything, Congratulations shows a clear — and, at times, misguided — attempt to stay true to MGMT’s artistic roots, pop ambitions be damned. But that’s not to say the album wouldn’t have benefited from another “Electric Feel.”
Goldwasser and VanWyngarden seem to know lightning rarely strikes twice, and only time will tell whether Congratulations will ultimately deliver the group to where it would like to be. But for now, it seems like the right move.