It's easier to tell a story everyone's heard before. Audiences follow more comfortably when the narrative is familiar, when the twist comes right after the turn.
Once the province of lazy journalists, today the pastime of surface skimming and story conforming is hardwired into the way we each communicate. Conveying nuance in 140-character bursts and socially networked hive-thoughts isn't easy. That's why, musically, the old standbys are still trotted out, Tuesday after Tuesday; and why every band on its second record has to brace for the "dreaded sophomore slump," an idea beaten to death with such frequency that it becomes part and parcel of the discussion of any noteworthy follow-up. Sometimes it's even a self-fulfilling prophecy.
When Congratulations, MGMT's hugely anticipated, commercially confounding answer to 2008's single-laden Oracular Spectacular, was released in April, you couldn't open a magazine or spy on a Wall-to-Wall Facebook convo without being confronted with the talk. A simple Google search presents 21,600 instances in which the phrase "sophomore slump" was used in conjunction with "MGMT" over the last 12 months (and, hey, here's another one). But there's nuance in this "slump."
In interviews, principles Ben Goldwasser and Andrew VanWyngarden seem aware of both the narrative forced on them by the media and the narrative they'd prefer to present. The pair strike the pose of innocent bystanders, attention-averse artists thrust into a frightening limelight, casualties of their own creative impulses. That position forgives their quirks, but also means they're overly cautious to attach themselves to their own success. In interviews, VanWyngarden has gone on at length about decisions to not write a second album about "fame," or fretted about "listening to, like, the masses instead of making an album that no one is going to like," as he told The New York Times in April.
Whether or not any of the aw-shucks is buyable is beside the point. Congratulations was the living, breathing proof that MGMT wanted listeners to believe that they'd made a different record, a different story. What happened on that LP was a new, narrative-bucking phenomenon: the Sophomore Shrug, when an artist knows his follow-up is going to disappoint the audience that got him there—but the artist couldn't really give a shit about that.
Of course, after the band's ascent, the cards were always stacked against MGMT. Goldwasser and VanWyngarden were given four years to write a handful of hits before riding a tidal wave of buzz and major-label props to a foreign land. When they got to summer stages in sheds and six-figure album sales, they realized their 10-track album had been whittled down to a 4-song iPod workout mix. Once the band had climbed out of Brooklyn, all the kids wanted was the hits—regardless of the fact that for every "Time to Pretend" on Spectacular there was a "4th Dimensional Transition" or "Pieces of What" cool-down.
There's liberation in the Sophomore Shrug. And whether or not Congratulations is a good record (way debatable), releasing it was almost certainly a good decision for the band. They no longer have to deal with that pesky narrative. Whatever MGMT does next—artistic oddity or commercial commodity—they'll get away with it, whether the story is easy to tell or not.