Although it was an unusual move, there’s something noble about the way in which Klaxons reacted to Universal Records’ criticism of their proposed second album: they admitted the label was right. As bassist/falsetto man Jamie Reynolds fessed up to NME in March of last year, the dance-punk quartet had made “a really dense, psychedelic record,” and after meeting with the suits they came to realize it just wasn’t their forte. Whether or not it was the right call remains to be heard — the fact that there’s still no release date on the thing might be a bad sign — but that’s not really the point. It’s just refreshing to hear that a successful pop band made the predictable attempt at grandiose Art, failed, and were willing to admit it before foisting their mistake on the rest of the world.
That said, there’s something noble in what MGMT have done with their second studio album, too. Bolstered by a few truly memorable singles, the Brooklyn-based duo’s 2007 debut Oracular Spectacular was a spotty but potent mix of mainstream pop and experimental quirk: enough of the former to fit in playing a Teen Vogue party in L.A., enough of the latter to be handpicked as an opening act by the likes of Radiohead and Paul McCartney. And now that the whole wide world is paying attention, MGMT masterminds Ben Goldwasser and Andrew VanWyngarden have responded by making — well, a really dense, psychedelic record. But unlike Klaxons, and despite the inevitable tensions with their backers at Columbia Records, the two stood by their hard work: and lo, Congratulations.
Unfortunately, the band’s unapologetic stance toward their new direction lasted no longer than when people started to actually hear it. Shortly after the confused indifference that met first single “Flash Delirium,” a proggy pastiche of ill-fitting styles and tiresome mood shifts, Goldwasser actually gave something of an apology. He recalled that the song was written as a joke, claimed “it’s not a single,” and said he was sorry that it might not have met folks’ expectations. If nothing else, he said they had figured it was a good way “to entice people to listen to the whole record.”
Which is why it’s pretty odd that “Delirium” winds up being more or less representative of the rest of Congratulations. From the LSD-inspired opener “It’s Working” to all 12 minutes of the remarkably overblown “Siberian Breaks,” it’s an album trapped between the margins: on one hand, there’s nary a hook to be found, and on the other, these songs run out of steam as sonic experiments on the first spin. “Someone’s Missing” gets lost in its own atmospheric haze, the aforementioned “Delirium” and “Breaks” have a couple nice ideas smothered by scores of poor ones, “I Found a Whistle” briefly intrigues but quickly drags, etc. It’s all dense psych-garage rockouts without any payoff, and sparse exploratory meanderings that lead nowhere — often spliced in ways that make little sense, yoked together by no more than a song title.
The sad irony is that while the only ostensible reason for MGMT’s stylistic 180 is to seem less like a lightweight pop act, the songs on Oracular were far more engaging and better written than almost anything here. And the difference is that they were not only songs about something, but ones that felt honest and relatable. Unsurprisingly, the three best examples were the biggest hits: “Time To Pretend” remains a shockingly deep comment on fame for having come from a couple guys who hadn’t yet tasted it, “Electric Feel” has got to be one of the most metrically complex club come-ons of the past decade, and a feeling of lost innocence and memory is somehow perfectly suggested in the lyrical abstractions and synth symphony of “Kids.” Meanwhile, the lyrics of Congratulations are nothing but abstraction, seldom adding up to much of anything. “Song For Dan Treacy” and “Brian Eno” are perhaps the most thematically obvious, and it’s commendable that Goldwasser and WynGarden are using their fame to boost some of their musical heroes — but attempting that with a couple of the record’s weakest tunes does no one any favors. And while it’s probably safe to assume they’re kidding, the notion of MGMT always being “just one step behind” a true pioneer like Eno probably would have been better left an inside joke.
It’s almost unfair, then, that a song as gorgeous as the title track has to bat cleanup for this whole ordeal — and that it nearly pulls it off is testament to what a fine piece of music it really is. Invalidating everything prior, “Congratulations” is the reflection on fame that MGMT has spent the entirety of the record dancing around, and it’s just as honest and direct as any of their best songs. Summing up the music industry with poetic eloquence and impressive accuracy, VanWyngarden traces the relationships between just about everyone in it: bands, fans, managers, execs, accountants, promoters, yesmen, critics, et al. The arrangement shamelessly nicks the great bassline of “The Weight” by the Band, and if Goldwasser’s keyboard noodlings resemble the lead guitar licks from The Stone Roses’ “I Wanna Be Adored” by coincidence, it’s a brilliant one — “Congratulations” comes off like every bit the intersection of those two classics, ambivalently mixing an all-consuming desire for fame with the sense of a heavy burden. After all, even as the weariness in VanWyngarden’s voice is clear while he observes every facet of the machinery that supports his career, he admits he’d “rather dissolve” than be ignored. In a state of exhausted reverie, MGMT end the record by spreading out on the festival green and soaking in all the love they can.
In the wake of such a fine song, it’s hard not to wonder where MGMT will go from here. Perhaps they will wind up deciding they are “first and foremost a pop band,” like Klaxons apparently did — or maybe, as with the title track, they’ll find a better way to blend their newfound ambitions with their old knack for a catchy tune. Either way, therein lies Congratulations’ biggest triumph: despite being every bit the sophomore slump MGMT damn near willed it to be, it leaves you just enough reason to stay interested in what they do next.