LITTLE DARK AGE by MGMT
Favorite Tracks: “Little Dark Age,” “Hand It Over”
The mythos of MGMT is almost a household tale for anyone who has paid attention to music in the last decade. Upon their breakthrough, everybody wanted to make music like these guys. Their debut, ORACULAR SPECTACULAR, served as a gateway drug for a few different circles of kids—no pun intended. There were the kids still ogling over The Beatles and Pink Floyd, who heard a modern manifestation of what classic rock and psychedelia could sound like now. There were the kids who still clung to The Killers and The Strokes as rocks revolutionaries, who heard a way to stay hip as the new wave/post-punk revival started to lose it’s cool. There were the blog house brats, who heard electropop to dance to on the radio again. Even the hip hop kids, who heard them next to Kid Cudi on “Pursuit of Happiness,” came along for the ride. Remember Chiddy Bang? They even sampled “Kids” and turned out a minor hit. For a minute—hyperbolic as it may seem now—MGMT felt like the closest thing to a Beatles or a Nirvana in a generation.
That album, and especially its three inescapable singles, could fill rooms with a layer cake of sunny synths, psych-choral vocals, glam showmanship, and teenage listlessness. A nice listicle could be put together for all the “Midnight City” and “Pumped Up Kicks” of the world who may not have found a place on pop radio without “Kids” or “Electric Feel.” Hell, here’s a hot question: where would Animal Collective or Tame Impala be on a festival poster be without ORACULAR SPECTACULAR? But the air cleared quickly.
The duo’s very intentional rejection of their pop sensibilities was well-documented on CONGRATULATIONS, their underappreciated sophomore LP. It was a gonzo amalgam of even deeper ‘60s psych-pop and art rock scholarship. Another nice listicle could be put together about the Foxygens or Mac DeMarcos of the world who wouldn’t be where they are without CONGRATULATIONS. As a full album, it felt more focused and even fresher than its predecessor, whose bubblegum synthpop had gone stale. No one tasted this more than the band, and they spit it right out. A month or so after CONGRATULATIONS’ release in 2010, I recall them clearly choosing to not play “Kids” at a Coachella sunset set, leading to confusion and boos from the crowd. It was clear nobody gave a shit about CONGRATULATIONS and, from then on, it seemed like nobody really gave a shit about MGMT anymore, even MGMT.
They sounded bored and defeated on their next record, a mild and meandering self-titled effort (they couldn’t even title the damn thing) that featured existentially-titled singles such as “Your Life is a Lie” and “Introspection.” The band’s navel-gazing seemed like an unceremonious end of the road. The got famous on something that, turns out, they didn’t like: making pop music. They’d become the cliché they joked about in their initial hit, “Time to Pretend” —admittedly still their finest few minutes. There’s no fault in a band for doing what they want, but even a revisit to their self-titled is unrewarding. Five odd years removed from their initial arrival, it sounded like they weren’t interested anymore. The wide net of bands that MGMT has indirectly ushered in were making more interesting sounds and so the world moved on.
Which leads us to LITTLE DARK AGE. It’s curious what that title suggests. It can’t help but call to our current political times. But deeper, it alludes back to a period of creative and personal bleakness for the band. ORACULAR and, to an extent, CONGRATULATIONS, sounded like a band embracing the world, twisting every new new sound they discovered into something bright, big, and beautiful for the internet era. MGMT, the album, sounded burnt out and broke—a band pawning off the rest of their ideas before returning to Earth. Just look at the album art of Goldwater and VanWyngarden sitting in front a consignment store called Stylz Unlimited.
It’s clear that the duo picked up some new “old” LPs while they were at that consignment store, though. LITTLE DARK AGE doesn’t so much mark a shift in style, but a shift in influence. They’ve moved themselves into a new decade, pulling from the glitzy pop styles of the ‘80s. The eponymous first single, a groovy and gothic Gary Numan send-up, hinted at this. It’s dreary, perhaps something fit for a dollar-bin VHS horror film. But it was a prologue to a older, wiser band. “Open-eyed / Turn the page / My little dark age,” VanWyngarden sings. Thus, the title LITTLE DARK AGE is a bait and switch— it’s a reintroduction to MGMT, a band moving forward.
Five seconds in, the record zips to life with the same giddy synths that made them a household name a decade ago. A hokey ‘80s workout VHS sample chimes in: “Get ready to have some fun!” It’s a declaration that they’ve cleared their heads, an immediate entrance into a space that Andrew VanWyngarden and Ben Goldwater have rebuilt for themselves. A space that, for once, can occupy their influences and their enthusiasm.
“I need a new routine,” VanWyngarden sings in the first chorus of that great opening bounce, “She Works Out Too Much.” He’s referring to app-dating. But if this album is a retrospective of MGMT’s journey to clarity, it sets the tone for the sonic exploration that ensues. The album serves as a sample platter of post-MGMT indie landscape. Shades of Neon Indian, Ariel Pink (who co-writes on “When You Die), and the aforementioned Foxygen cover the album. In this way, it’s hard to fully separate MGMT from their predecessors now, and this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In fact, it feels oddly welcome in its familiarity.
“When You’re Small” recalls Pink Floyd’s quieter moments. “One Thing Left To Try” is the synth-driven banger nobody got on CONGRATULATIONS. “Hand It Over” is a gorgeous closer, whose melancholy catharsis lingers long after its ghostly, Beach Boys chorus drifts away. While the middle of the album gets clouded with the band’s more stuffy tendencies, MGMT does this retro-glancing pop better than a lot of folks, and it’s their ear for texture that set them apart. Where their early work saw them pushing everything to the front, LITTLE DARK AGE finds them more patient to introduce textures and lay them down more meticulously. VanWyngarden is a quieter voice now as well, often pushed back in the mix to favor the instrumentals. He’s no longer the effescent glam-pop madman he sounded like on ORACULAR or CONGRATULATIONS. He and, in turn, the whole band, feel grounded.
If anything, LITTLE DARK AGE sounds like a band adjusting their course to what they do best. It’s hard to tell if the comeback story elevates it, as it is an admittedly slight record, but it’s also hard not to root for MGMT. It’s hard to ride the hype. But now, they’re back to being adventurous and playful, while staying cool. As a whole, it lacks the fervent energy of MGMT old, but it’s reassuring to hear them sound comfortable and content again.