Review Summary: Don't call me nice.
I think the spectre of Oracular Spectacular
haunts MGMT more than it should, which is ironic considering I’ve just chosen to foreshadow an entire discussion of Little Dark Age
by contrasting the two releases. Well, how about considering it from this perspective; maybe MGMT should consider that album’s legacy to be pervasive, rather than problematic? After all, “Kids” and “Electric Feel” were and are good songs, but has that album in its entirety ever held up as a particularly eventful moment of its time? Or, do we remember those two or three songs, and let nostalgia fill in the rest? I’d argue in favour of the latter, just as I would argue that whilst Congratulations
and their self-titled albums were not particularly good in any way, they were no more or less worthless as Oracular Spectacular
should be remembered. This is a band that, with no disrespect intended, has essentially survived on misplaced hype; and so the narrative goes on, haughty critics deriding each and every MGMT song in the belief they're always trying to write their next “Time to Pretend.”
It’s hardly fair, but it’s at least transferred some measure of goodwill upon this band that otherwise wouldn’t have been accorded had they not dominated the charts about ten years ago. Goodwill that, needless to say, helped them survive the critical mauling that sunk their last effort, 2013’s dense and derided MGMT
, and has now allowed us to talk freely and openly about Little Dark Age
with the critical maxim that it’s their best album in over a decade. Now, obviously, that much is true, but again, such comparisons put terrific weight upon this band to again meet the false standard that is Oracular Spectacular
. The band that wrote that album was full of joy, both loose and youthful, sincere and plentiful; the band that recorded this album sounds nothing like that. Accordingly, it’s hard to imagine that it will find major success, as few songs resemble their hits or even hint towards replicating a cultural moment that is commercial viable on a wide scale (vague overtures towards the ‘80s notwithstanding). To put it mildly, Little Dark Age
isn’t a success story, nor is it a comeback for anyone other than the most nerdish and devoted of us, and it doesn’t matter anyway. This isn’t the best this band has sounded in years, it’s the best they’ve ever sounded.
None of that betrays the fact that MGMT still sound like MGMT at heart. Despite infusing their songs with a heightened anxiety, these are songs that are still nostalgic for any given yesterday, if not lyrically-- and lyrically, this thing is writ large with detached technophobia and neurotic obsessions disguised as love-- then in composition and production. That much was obvious when we chose to recommit to the band with the title-track, which mixed gothic theatrics with deadpan vocals and macabre, dramatic synths that hinted towards The Damned or The Sisters of Mercy; needless to say, most of Little Dark Age
touches upon similar archetypes, whether that be the sexually ambiguous and Pet Shop Boys indebted “Me and Michael,” or the ironic jangle confessional “When You Die.” It helps that MGMT wholly commits to the pastiche, because the lyrical subject matter, ranging relationship problems expressed through workout metaphors, to ennui brought upon by technological advancement, gives these songs lifeblood beyond initial curiosity. Among them, “One Thing Left to Try” is the only song that wilfully creates a through-line to Oracular Spectacular
, and honestly, it’s pure coincidence that it’s the album’s strongest song.
Obviously, followers will be cautiously optimistic, and detractors will be smugly contrarian over this shift in style. The embrace of Ariel Pink, who features written, performing, and production contributions all over this album could logically lead some to construe this a conscious effort to garner attention at the cost of actual songs. And, certainly, there are songs where certain sounds, melodies, and words begin to weigh down the conceit of the album and make it all sound a little too 1980s for its own good. But, having said that, this is still the best album MGMT have ever made, not in spite of, but because it so wilfully mines nostalgia to express themes common to the band. Previously, those core elements alone were not enough to justify caring about the band past 2007. Now, infused with an outward adoration for The Smiths and New Order, its given them a reason to exist in the first place. Not too bad for a band that only five years ago insisted they couldn’t write pop songs.