The interim between the newly released Little Dark Age, and MGMT’s self-titled album (released 2013) was hardly even filled with radio static. The band had seemingly disappeared off the face of the Earth on social media, leaving fans wondering whether there would be another album. Somewhere within the static fuzz of mid-2016, the band revealed that they were working in a home studio.
This album was largely self-produced, with the help of Dave Fridmann and Patrick Wimberly, although there are various other artists featured. Ariel Pink, Connan Mockasin, and several other musicians played on some of the tracks, adding their particular brand of psychedelic sound to the 80s-inspired record.
Goldwasser’s use of electronic sequencers and synthesizers gave the album a distinct new-wave vibe, often directly referencing specific artists. In the most recently released single, “Me and Michael,” the band parody’s the concept of stealing a song from another artist, ironically, sounding a lot like New Order and Depeche Mode all rolled into one.
While remaining an appropriation band, MGMT is able to create original content. While exercising irony, they still create genuine emotional soundscapes. They’re silly, while remaining intellectual, never taking themselves or anyone else too seriously.
Although there were four singles released prior to Little Dark Age coming out, the first track illustrates this perfectly. Almost a call-out to Yoshimi-era Flaming Lips, the song has whooshing flangers on the vocals and warbled samples what sound like instructions in a workout-video, featuring saxophone and ironic lyrics. Before listeners can get too confused, the next song is the first single, and the title track, followed by two more singles, “When You Die,” and “Me and Michael.”
These catchy, radio-friendly singles lull listeners into a state of false comfort and humor, as the album progresses from here, it becomes more complicated, never truly straying too far from the new-wave aesthetic they had built throughout. Much of the message of the lyrics have to do with the positives and downfalls of new technology.
“Tslamp,” for example is written about “time spent staring at [one’s] phone,” and the search for connection in this increasingly ‘connected’ world. Van Wyngarden writes, “You should come with me, // We can lose ourselves in nothing, // Happy faces from the feed // and we try to turn them into something, // even if you choose to believe that it’s empty.” Though several of the songs on the album have incorporated ironic, humorous lyrics, these seem more somber and honest.
“James” is lyrically simple, somehow creating a childish or youthful atmosphere that borders on transcendental. It shows reverence of the natural world, as Van Wyngarden reveals admiration that James can “just go outside…” This song too, ends positively as Van Wyngarden’s lyrics drone on, “James” begins to sound like “change, … you’re never too far off.”
“Days that Got Away” follows a motley rhythmic pattern, similar to other electronic beats used in past releases like “Cool Song No. 2.” Detuned, echoing synths follow a hollow melodic pattern, with whale-like pads dipping in and out. The few vocals are high-pitched, funky disco harmonies that embody a ghostly, filtered and octave-split vocals, repeating the title. This song directly contrasts the next, “One Thing Left to Try” which is incredibly poppy, closer to Blondie’s “Heart of Glass.”
In true art rock tradition, MGMT borrows the aesthetic from Pink Floyd’s “Brain Damage” for its second to last track. The song builds from simplified acoustic guitar and filtered synths. Van Wyngarden uses the lower register of his voice, which apart from this album is generally unusual for him. The lyrics sound like they’re straight out of Alice and Wonderland, “When Your Small” utilizes the basic rhythmic pattern, and raises it with Carroll-style rhyme scheme, simultaneously feigning depth while spouting nonsense like the March Hare.
The final song being a meta-masterpiece, VanWyngarden’s lyrics could be discussing the rights to their music, considering the end of their contract with Columbia Records. It is interesting to consider what the band will do in the future – now that they can go in any direction they’d like, “which door do [they] open?”