Music Review: MGMT’s Exhaustion Clearly on Display in “Congratulations”

Five years ago, Wesleyan graduates Ben Goldwasser and Andrew VanWyngarden introduced themselves as The Management, a project dabbling in just the sort of playful, synth-flavored psychedelic pop that made for radio-friendly success in both underground and mainstream music circles. We know them today as MGMT, a Grammy-nominated, internationally-acclaimed act famous for their infectiously catchy hits such as “Kids,” “Time To Pretend,” and “Electric Feel.” Saturated with hype, MGMT seems to evoke the love-‘em-or-hate-‘em credibility reserved for bands like Vampire Weekend or Animal Collective. Unfortunately, the band’s hype, which includes a lawsuit against French president Nicolas Sarkozy and limitless praise from Rolling Stone (who named MGMT’s debut, “Oracular Spectacular,” the 18th best album of the past decade), can detract far too much from the band’s musical ability. At this point, most music fans either squeal with delight or groan in agony upon hearing those first few sparkles of synth on “Time To Pretend,” and regardless of which camp you claim membership to, MGMT’s influence on the contemporary popular music scene is undeniable.

In an interview with NME, Ben Goldwasser claimed the band had no real intentions of releasing any singles from their upcoming sophomore release, “Congratulations.” “We’d rather people hear the whole album as an album and see what tracks jump out rather than the ones that get played on the radio,” Goldwasser said. Upon listening to the band’s new album, currently streaming for free on the band’s Web site, I began to understand Goldwasser’s intentions with that album-centric ethic of synergy to the recording of “Congratulations.” It’s an undoubtedly admirable and rare philosophy for such a young band to follow nowadays, especially in the current age of downloadable commercial music. Call me old-fashioned, but such an attitude feels refreshing in light of the music industry’s stress on radio-friendly singles. God forbid that one band should dare refuse adherence to the iTunes business model by stressing the cohesion of an album! How will the people know which tracks they ought to download?

Unfortunately for “Congratulations,” cohesive though the album may be, it is also painfully unremarkable. Most of the songs seem to drag on unenthusiastically like a collection of abandoned B-sides from a far more captivating record. Singer Andrew VanWyngarden’s voice feels jaded and phoned-in, and without any real harmonic hooks or melodic refrains backing him up to help us connect with his music, we cannot help but share his ennui. Mostly, the album feels like the swan song of a washed-up ‘60s sunshine-pop band that ran out of ideas.

Songs like “Someone’s Missing” and “I Found A Whistle” waddle around in uninspired confusion before fading away into obscurity, often prompting this reviewer to ask himself, “Did I actually just listen to a song?” Sophomore records should utilize the originality of sound on a debut record as a stepping-stone for further, more innovative musical statements. This recipe might have succeeded had MGMT released “Congratulations” before “Oracular Spectacular.” The former contains nothing we have not heard before, no sounds that feel different or exciting. One might expect a song like “Brian Eno” to pay some reverent tribute to the legendary musician, composer, producer, and pioneer of ambient music. Instead, comically distracting horns twiddle through a four-and-a-half-minute failed attempt at prog rock. One can barely hear VanWyngarden’s voice on the album’s most accessible track, “Flash Delirium,” a bumbling, incoherent mess that feels more like a pastiche of scrapped demo tracks and album filler than the soaring pop opus it strives to be. The album’s least despicable track, “It’s Working,” hardly lives up to its name, wasting nearly two minutes of amateur meandering toward what might be described as a hook, although MGMT seemed to run out of ideas after finding it.

Actually, this album’s failure can be ascribed to exactly that: a dearth of ideas. After listening to the album, one cannot help but get the sense that the band was informed of their responsibility to record another album merely two weeks ago, and instead of taking the extra time to steer their sound toward greater heights, Goldwasser and VanWyngarden decided to instead record the trite and unimaginative ideas that didn’t make it onto “Oracular Spectacular.” So while MGMT may hear “Congratulations” as “a collection of nine individual musical tours de force sequenced to flow with sonic and thematic coherence” (SPIN Magazine), I hear a drab, awkward, and shamefully self-indulgent mess of generic songwriting and exhausted creativity.

“Congratulations” will be released April 13.

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