MGMT was one of the largest success stories of late-2000s pop music. Songs like “Time to Pretend” and “Kids,” from the college friends turned indie-darlings’ 2007 debut album Oracular Spectacular were the songs of a generation. They were the songs about the celebration of being young and not giving a fuck about the future. Unfortunately, in the years following this breakthrough record, the band’s ambitious follow-ups failed to capture the attention of both fans and critics and MGMT’s star dimmed over the course of the last decade.
On Andrew VanWyngarden and Ben Goldwasser’s first album in five years, however, they have largely abandoned the 1960s and ‘70s hero reference that they displayed on their last two records for a minimalistic synth-pop sound. Much like their critically acclaimed debut, Little Dark Age is full of infectious hooks that weave in and out of the songs, while staying true to the darker lyrical edge that has persisted throughout their catalog.
The first real stand-out on the album is the eponymous track, with verses that plod along almost like a chillwave song written by The Cure setting up a must faster-paced chorus rich with bright synths, pounding bass, and VanWyngarden’s delivery (one that is measured but borders on urgent). “Me and Michael” wouldn’t be out of place in a 1980s romantic-comedy, or as a Wham! B-Side. The song is a hook-laden pop song in every sense, with a mid-tempo groove and infectious melody that rises and falls as the song carries on. A track later in the album, “One Thing Left to Try”, is cut from the same cloth, driven by boisterous synths and a drum beat heavy on intricate high-hat work. “James” sees VanWyngarden shift to a smooth baritone register accompanied by pounding drums and bass, twinkling piano and beautifully effected harmonies.
It is worth noting that there are some real clunkers on Little Dark Age. Album opener “She Works Out Too Much” relies on jazzy bass riffs and chords that start and stop in jarring fashion, paired with a combination of vocoded vocals, dialogue and lyrics about dating-app bullshit. Likewise, “TSLAMP” (Time Spent Looking at My Phone) is a boring dub-influenced track that meanders along with an uninspired vocal pattern that just mirrors the rhythm section. All of this makes the track feel like it goes on for much longer than it should, even with the interesting synth arpeggio that carries the chorus.
The duo is truly at their best on “When You Die.” The track juxtaposes an incredibly catchy guitar lead and upbeat tone with lyrics that explore what happens when you die. “You die/and words won’t do anything,” VanWyngarden calmly sings, “It’s permanently night/and I won’t feel anything.” It’s also worth noting that the song has the closest thing to a sing-a-long moment, as the second verse starts with the lyric, “Go fuck yourself.” Although the lyrical content is bleak, its probably the most focused and mature their message has ever been, and really resonates.
MGMT’s growth is perhaps the most apparent on the final two tracks. “When You’re Small” evokes late 1960s psychedelia, built around acoustic guitar, delicate harmonies, a meandering flanger-drenched guitar solo and swelling strings. The song wouldn’t have felt out of place on any of their records, but somehow makes the most sense on this one.
The band’s self-awareness shines through on closer “Hand It Over,” which seems like a true insight into their collective psyche after the rollercoaster ride of their careers. But there is this sense of reverence for the way they’ve carried themselves throughout their journey as a band, and their willingness to push boundaries even if fans and critics didn’t come along for the ride. “The smart ones exit early,” VanWyngarden sings softly, “And the rest hope for a shoulder.” Hopefully, this return to form will show MGMT that they’ve been smart for sticking around.