MGMT predestined its current suffering with its first single: The East Coast band's big, bouncy 2008 smash, "Time to Pretend," turned two art-rock kids into festival headliners. The song—three jubilant minutes of making plans to blow off the world, forget friends and families, and move to Europe to do heroin and have sex—seemed precocious at first. Consider the gumption, after all, of a plinky underdog act dreaming of glamorous rock-star make-believe.
Then "Time to Pretend" turned retroactively prescient, as the band's cofounders, Andrew VanWyngarden and Ben Goldwasser, morphed into booze-laden, actress-dating, self-fulfilled prophecies. They'd had their cake by first mocking it. But now, after that single and two decidedly more abstruse albums, MGMT has slid far from the peak of the electro-candy mountain it helped create. That signature song now seems cruelly ironic, an unfortunate remembrance of a wish come true and gone sour.
"Time to Pretend" led MGMT's 2007 debut Oracular Spectacular, but it didn't reflect the sound of the whole. In fact, the album's three singles still inaccurately define the band they were responsible for revealing to the world at large: "Kids" is almost the platonic ideal of a mid-'00s Internet hit, with the infectious synth loops that had just been welcomed into indie rock plus the slightly yippy vocals of Animal Collective. "Electric Feel" is a blue-eyed disco ballad, much groovier than anything surrounding it. R&B has since seeped further into the fabric of underground music made by white kids, but MGMT's version more closely resembled the tongue-in-cheek homages of Beck's Midnite Vultures than the tortured feelings-delivery of a How to Dress Well record.
But the rest of Oracular Spectacular sounds distant and sun-blinded, as if embarrassed by the direct gaze of that troika of hits. More than anything, the album's seven other songs recall the half-baked cuts of a mid-'90s alt-radio band with a big record deal but destined to break up after four albums. They're initially appealing but ultimately disposable, like minor Suede or major Spacehog. That is the band, it seems now, MGMT always wanted to be outside of the spotlight of singles.
Their follow-up, 2010's Congratulations, infamously set them on a different commercial plane several points down in font size on the Coachella poster. The press mostly relegated the record to out-of-nowhere, self-sabotaging status, not unlike Nirvana's In Utero. But the album admirably executed the songwriting impulse that felt like filler on Oracular Spectacular. As producer, Spacemen 3's Pete "Sonic Boom" Kember made MGMT sound like spaced-out U.K. hippies, but the previous vocal distance was halved. The songs hummed with endearing, hammy personality, and even the meandering bits ambled between separate bright melodic snippets.
Despite its string of incomplete thoughts and tangents, the 12-minute, multipart non-jam "Siberian Breaks" isn't even that recondite, though it shuffles semi-aimlessly. "Breaks" is far gentler than the most over-the-top excesses of similarly aimed mid-'00s acts such as Fiery Furnaces and Of Montreal—no one sings in Inuit and no one else is lasciviously referred to as a "pleasure puss."
Rather than try to chase a string of big dance hits, then, MGMT opted to keep moving inward on Congratulations. It made logical sense, even if it diminished their commercial potential almost instantly. Congratulations debuted at No. 2 on The Billboard 200, but in the three-plus years since its release, it's yet to sell more than 300,000 copies. The album only spent three months on the chart; Oracular Spectacular had spent more than two years on it. But it's a surprisingly good record that borders on great. Compared to a more-recent version of psychedelic British rock like California's Foxygen, it sounds vivid and imaginative. Congratulations hits all sorts of Hunky Dory and Village Green Preservation Society high notes, making space in its track list to name-check Brian Eno and the Television Personalities while sounding like Supergrass and The Libertines.
The title track closes Congratulations, and it is the band's best song to date, a lovely slow-burning glam-ballad that sounds as though the juvenile rock star of "Time to Pretend" has grown the fuck up. It's the perfectly meta second chapter, a poignant end for the sort of initially disappointing record that almost always gets rediscovered and re-evaluated years later, when some reissue drops, stripped of the context surrounding the first release. People will hear it again in 15 years and be baffled that it was once considered willfully difficult. But what does MGMT do until that point, until they can tour on the reunion circuit as more than a three-hit wonder?
MGMT, the new album, sounds utterly deflated by all that unfairness and future prospects. They again mine British psychedelic rarities, staying resolute in their refusal to add massive EDM beat drops or any other obvious sign of regret for letting a bankable sound slip away. Predictably, it was a commercial flop, exiting The Billboard 200 after a mere three weeks. What's more, the playful, naïve, feather-boa'd charms of Congratulations have been stamped out and sobered up on an album that is content to be a drag. If MGMT's past existed in paisley and neon, this album works through pervasive grayscale. VanWyngarden, previously able to make dodgy concepts fly with a loony pop-fop delivery, practically mopes. Even the most buoyant track riffs around the depressive lyrics: "He knows it's alright, to live a lie, waiting to die."
And maybe that's what they're doing now. There seems to be little financial incentive for MGMT simply to disband, as they remain a bankable live group, a nostalgia act before their time for young fans who count those long-gone hits among the definitive soundtrack of an '00s adolescence. But MGMT doesn't make records for those kids, anymore; aside from three songs, they never have.
In recent interviews, VanWyngarden and Goldwasser have suggested that they are more than happy to have Oracular Spectacular, Congratulations and high expectations in general behind them. Now they can follow their muse—all the way into cult-audience obscurity, if need be. Despite the brave talk in print, they honestly sound miserable on record, like the shunning of their well-executed dream record broke them for good.
MGMT once sang, "What else can we do? Get jobs in offices, wake up for the morning commute?" How much time is left to pretend that's not what they wound up doing anyway, by trying to be the band no one wanted them to be?
This article appeared in print with the headline "Middle management."