Five years have passed since indie sensation MGMT released its last album, creatively titled MGMT, but the band returned on Feb. 9 with a journey through space in a synth-pop rocket ship on Little Dark Age. On the 10-track album, MGMT cements its eternal status as a pop powerhouse with unique flare and charisma.
A woman’s voice ushers in the album with a chipper “Get ready to have some fun! / Alright here we go!” on the opening track, “She Works Out Too Much.” Vocalist Andrew VanWyngarden finds himself complaining that he’s “Sick of liking your selfies” to a conceited love interest, while the woman’s almost robotic voice retorts “The only reason we never worked out was / He didn’t work out.” The sarcastic song stays true to MGMT’s usual irreverence while the overtly synthetic beat establishes the interstellar sound of Little Dark Age.
Prior to releasing the album MGMT released four singles, the first of which rips a page out of a Stephen King novel for a heart-pounding horrorshow. The tortured title track “Little Dark Age” was released just in time for Halloween last October and proved a solid comeback single for the band. MGMT walks listeners through a vivid nightmare with lyrics like “The feelings start to rot” and “The image of the dead / Dead ends in my mind.” A synthesizer mimics an organ sound to add to the mystifying horror of the song.
“Me and Michael” is the foil for the creepy character of “Little Dark Age,” instead utilizing a beat that sounds transplanted straight from the credits of a John Hughes flick. Cosmic twinkling flourishes, melodic “woah”s, and synthetic horns team up to complement the dreamy nostalgia of the lyrics. VanWyngarden reminisces about “the burning light on summer nights” during the first verse and sings about the “solid as they come” ambiguous relationship between the title characters during the chorus.
The shine of “TSLAMP” and “James” dims in comparison to that of other tracks on the album. The former comments on modern man’s crippling addiction to cell phones as the track rings up an unavailable friend in the middle. Even in death, the band finds itself glued to its devices: “Gods descend to take me home / Find me staring at my phone.” Meanwhile, “James” blends into the space voyage theme of the album but gets lost in a heart-warming yet overly personal tribute to the band’s live guitarist James Richardson. The two more prominent members of MGMT, VanWyngarden and Ben Goldwasser, encourage the inconspicuous musician to lean on them, reassuring him “James / If you need a friend / Come right over.”
The techno tones of “Days That Got Away” fade out to reveal a calming saunter through a virtual world full of eccentric sounds and the faint suggestion of a voice in the distance. A mix of synthetic noises that could have been pulled straight from an ’80s space video game is punctuated by the repeating title line. On the nearly five-minute track, MGMT provides a momentary day dream that dissolves the hours into “days that got away.”
“One Thing Left to Try” is upbeat, as VanWyngarden’s voice takes on an ‘80s pop character while he sings about leaving suicidal thoughts behind. The lyrics are genuinely encouraging—MGMT asks listeners “Do you want to keep us alive? / Do you want to feel alive?” The beat incorporates fun cowbell and vibrant glam rock guitar riffs before it fades to a mix of otherworldly techno sounds.
The indie group takes a turn and heads for calmer skies on “When You’re Small,” a mostly stripped song that discusses the tumultuous range of emotions experienced during life. MGMT rejects the normal structure of songwriting by leaving the song without a chorus but it manages to connect with listeners. The idea of smallness certainly fits in with the overarching space theme of Little Dark Age. MGMT addresses man’s place in the universe with the final line that proclaims “When you’re small / No you’re not very big at all.”
Undoubtedly the best tracks on the album, “When You Die” and “Hand It Over” are antithetical in tone and sound and capture the versatility of the band’s latest endeavor. The former employs the irreverent insincerity of MGMT’s earlier work with blunt lyrics like “Go f—k yourself / I’m mean, not nice.” MGMT handles the dark subject of death in a comically light manner, ending the chorus with “We’ll all be laughing with you when you die.” The beat adheres to the spacey sound of Little Dark Age but distinguishes itself with a whimsical flute, sinister laughter, and eccentric claps punctuating the psychedelic breakdown of the bridge.
Meanwhile, “Hand It Over” is ethereal and authentic both in sound and lyrics, an unusual approach for MGMT. A distant choir of voices calmingly repeats “hand it over” after every line of the romantic chorus that muses “In the dark / What’s yours is mine.” The dreamy ballad maintains the starry theme of the album in spite of its starkly different sound—the song is sucked into a black hole, morphing the waves of sound as it fades.
Little Dark Age is serious, yet not too serious, stylish yet mainstream, and genuine yet irreverent. MGMT journeys through the cosmos with spacey beats and universal questions to explain life on earth—it’s scary, it’s monotonous, it’s painful, it’s happy, and it’s laughable at times, but ultimately it’s authentically human.
Featured Image by Columbia Records