Before I officially begin to review the new MGMT album “Congratulations,” I feel that I should outline my history with the band, so you’re fully aware of my perspective and understand a little better as to why I’m saying the things I am. At its most basic, I despise MGMT. The first time I ever heard them was in 2005, when they were touring as the opening act for Of Montreal. While they were appropriately paired with Of Montreal, their live shows couldn’t have been more different. Compared to the showy spectacle that Kevin Barnes and the rest of Of Montreal put on, MGMT was like watching a poor man’s version of karaoke. Their set essentially was karaoke actually, because they had a boombox and would play the instrumental versions of their songs and then sing over them. No matter how compelling the songs might have been, the memory of those two guys singing with a boombox has stuck with me. Still, a friend of mine was inspired enough to buy one of their early CDs after the show, and as I was working in radio at the time, the band’s music was forced upon me as I was pressured to play them on the air. So the first MGMT song I ever played on the radio was “Time to Pretend,” and this was back in 2005. Honestly, it kind of grew on me. That and their song “Kids” was pretty solid too. Imagine my surprise then, 2 years later, when I found out that not only was MGMT putting out a new album, but that they were now signed to a major record label. What followed was a series of promotional efforts, where MGMT songs were licensed out to TV shows and movie soundtracks, and pushed for radio airplay. The thing about it though was that whenever I’d hear MGMT on a soundtrack or on the radio, it’d be the same 3 songs over and over and OVER again. “Time to Pretend” and “Kids” and “Electric Feel”. Upon hearing their last album (and official label debut) 2008’s “Oracular Spectacular”, not only did I note that a majority of the songs on it were from 2005, but that there were only 3 really good tracks on the album, each of which I just mentioned. The rest of it was largely psych-pop crap that unfortunately a lot of people were sucked into buying. The small coalition of MGMT supporters grew to the masses as those 3 good songs got more and more exposure and the band played summer festivals around the world. Throw in the fact that at some point in all this they actually recruited people who could play instruments on stage instead of a boombox, and suddenly these guys have really become an indie band crossing over into mainstream success. Yet here I am holding that against them.
So now we’re up to date. People have been chomping at the bit for this new MGMT record “Congratulations,” and given the success from the last album, I can understand why. Personally, given my stance on the band as outlined above, I’ve been actively rooting for these guys to fail. I sincerely don’t do that often and for many artists, and when I heard the new album’s first single “Flash Delirium,” a gigantic smile spread across my face. They’re playing it on the radio now, and I fail to understand exactly why, because it quite frankly sucks. Now before you stop reading, thinking this is going to be a full-on slamming of MGMT and the extension of an “unjustified” vendetta I’ve carried against this band for years, I want to tell you that is by no means the case. See, much of the grand purpose in spewing all this anger towards the band is to explain that sometimes there are life lessons to be learned from these experiences. That said, I was also pleased to read that many fans of the band were upset with not only “Flash Delirium,” but also the entirety of “Congratulations” once they’d heard it via leaks and/or online streaming. All of this built me up and got me excited to hear the album, analyze it, and most likely write an angry review further denouncing the band. But much to my surprise, and ultimate disappointment, that turned out to be not the case at all.
See, “Congratulations” is not a horrible album. Hell, it’s not even outright bad. Nor is it a triumph, but it’s certainly better than it needs or deserves to be. The surprise the band pulls, and it’s something nearly no band in their right minds would do, is that they spit directly in the face of assured commercial success in favor of doing basically whatever the fuck they want. For that reason, and for that reason alone, I stopped in my tracks and forgot about how much I dislike these guys. It takes serious balls to break convention with such ease, and for all I know it’s going to talk them straight out of their major label record deal, but good for them for sticking to their guns. For all my wondering as to exactly why MGMT would choose a song so strange and uncommercial as “Flash Delirium”, I didn’t stop to think that maybe it’s because that’s one of the more straightforward cuts on the album. Compare it to the 12 minute collage that is “Siberian Breaks” or the instrumental of “Lady Dada’s Nightmare,” and you understand why “Flash Delirium” might get chosen.
As much as I’m impressed with MGMT’s “devil may care” attitude with this new record, it’s something that becomes both a strength and a weakness. Listening to “Congratulations” from start to finish in one sitting, there’s definitely a trippy, highly psychedelic vibe that permeates most every aspect of the album and lends it a cohesiveness you just don’t get by listening to a single song. It’s part of the reason why, on the surface, a glancing blow like “Flash Delirium” can come off as crass and completely out of its element on the radio, but one of the more brilliant moments when sandwiched in with the rest of the record. So if you’re able to take in the entire album as one long acid trip and an open mind, there’s the very real possibility new doors will be opened for you and you’ll come away with positive vibes. Taken from a different viewpoint however, the way this record plays out can be a bit annoying. Does “Siberian Breaks” really need to be 12 minutes long when it sounds like sketches of 4 separate songs? The short answer is no, and that goes for many of the tracks on this album as they flutter from piece to piece with little or no regard towards when one song begins and another ends. Yes, the tracks don’t bleed into one another, but like a pair of children with severe ADD, there will often be pieces of multiple songs contained within one singular track, be it 4 minutes or 12 minutes. Just when you start getting into a certain groove, suddenly the rug is yanked out beneath you in favor of a new direction and just like that you’re lost again. It works well in some cases, as with the obviously-titled opening track “It’s Working”, but gets more mixed reaction in others, such as “Brian Eno”. This is, in fact, pretty much the same exact problem I had with the last Of Montreal album and its similarly skewed take on unfocused psych-pop. I’d like to think that MGMT do them one better here though, mostly because their constant paradigm shifts feel more tempered and even-handed.
Earlier in this review, as I was cursing MGMT for their poor live shows and use of recycled songs, I said that there was a lesson to be learned from it. For me, that was to never judge a band by their past. Sometimes, they might just come back and surprise the hell out of you, as was the case here. With “Congratulations,” these guys proved to me that not only can they write an album’s worth of decent material that doesn’t date back to their pre-label days, but also that they really don’t give a shit about what you or their label might want. Certainly the majority of their fans would have preferred a full album’s worth of gems like “Time to Pretend” and “Electric Feel,” and that they didn’t even try to repeat that success shows me their interest is in artistic integrity rather than a quick cash grab. So this record alone is enough to convert me into not so much a supporter of MGMT, but more like a distant admirer. I can honestly say with conviction that they have made their strongest and most consistent effort to date, and though it doesn’t blow minds like some hoped it would, I’m okay with that if you are. If you fell in love with this band thanks to a couple strong singles on their first album, I might warn you away from “Congratulations,” but for the rest of us, it might be worth picking up if you can buy it for under $10 (hint: it’s on sale most everywhere this week for $8).