When Ben Goldwasser and Andrew VanWyngarden first appeared on the radar as MGMT in 2007, critics and fans alike were captivated by the band’s psychedelic pop. Three years and countless world tours later, the duo have ditched the latter and buried their music in the former with the woozy and thoroughly psychedelic follow-up, Congratulations.
Should we be surprised? Well, no not really. After all, this is the band who consistently played against the grain, even when popularity beckoned. Their first hit single, ‘Time To Pretend’, was a playful parody of rock star celebrity with lyrics proclaiming ‘We’ll choke on our vomit and that will be the end / We were fated to pretend’. At live shows, their biggest hit ‘Kids’ was given a karaoke rendition at nearly every gig, with the band singing over a backing track. Their debut album Oracular Spectacular was filled with ’70s psychedelia masked by the success of that album’s singles. Hell, in their very first interview with State in early 2008, the band told us they made ‘obnoxious and antagonistic’ music while in college – with the kind of songs made to annoy – and that the call from Columbia Records to make an album came after the two had parted ways.
That was then, this is now. After a hugely successful first album, Goldwasser and VanWygarden hooked up with producer Sonic Boom of Spacemen 3 and decided to deliberately shun the spotlight. As a result, Congratulations is not filled with the kind of pop choruses that made ‘Kids’ and ‘Electric Feel’ such huge hits. This is more Procol Harum than Prince.
MGMT’s music is now primarily characterised by freaky organ riffs, discombobulating moments of prog, flute solos and Flaming Lips-esque mysticism (no surprise really, considering both bands shared Fridmann as a producer). Anyone who was left unimpressed by the pre-release track ‘Flash Delirium’ won’t find much to shout about here as it’s the album’s most immediate song.
Much of the album is decidedly downbeat with swirling psych dynamics and diversions within tracks into atmospherics that fail to captivate. ‘Someone’s Missing’ gets by on its payoff – a big explosive ending after the slow-burning swamp of the proceeding two minutes. 12-minute odyssey ‘Siberian Breaks’ is part The Doors, part shimmering rise and falls, part psychedelic synth jam, part gentle ballad but by the time its over, you’d be hesitant to hit repeat. ‘Brian Eno’ fares better – a driving rhythmic four-minute ode with the lyrics ‘We’re always one step behind him / Brian Eno’.
You can’t blame MGMT for following their musical hearts. It’s always been there – evident from the start. This version of the band – steeped in prog and psychedelics – is the sound of MGMT being true to themselves, even if the result on Congratulations is a meandering blissed-out journey with little to recommend after the last sustain has subsided.