MGMT’s self-titled third album will do little to dispel their reputation as a “difficult” band, but then again, it appears that the band itself is disinterested in changing that reputation. “At this point in our careers, we can’t write a pop song,” co-founder Andrew Van Wyngarden recently humble-bragged in a Pitchfork feature article, shoring up the band’s somewhat disingenuous mythology while also providing glimpses into the terminal apathy that has plagued the group from its inception. And following one of the most severe examples of sophomore slumping in recent memory, MGMT feels like a hedging of bets, a loose, scattershot collection of psychedelic pop, neither conventional nor radical, more electronic than its predecessor but also clearly less commercial than Oracular Spectacular, the band’s 2007 debut.
Little, if anything, on MGMT comes as a surprise. The antic Nuggets-styled psych-rock of Congratulations was already such a sharp left-turn from the gliding, suburban reveries of their debut, so much so that the Connecticut duo could have followed it with 40 minutes of Tuvan throat singing, and it would hardly be shocking. But instead, this new self-titled album seems to split the difference between the two, picking and choosing the weakest elements from each.
Produced by Dave Fridmann, who also produced Oracular Spectacular, the sonic components of MGMT are also perhaps its most appreciable. There’s a chewy tangibility to all of the whirring, pinging, and strobing that swaddle these otherwise simple songs. MGMT is not a difficult album to listen to, but it takes some work to hear anything substantial in meandering, dully repetitive material such as “Cool Song No. 2” and “Alien Days.” A good deal of effort was taken to cultivate the illusion of depth within each song, but the material itself is unworthy of its dressing.
Even the highlights, like “Mystery Disease,” with its paranoid, prog-pop tension, would have felt like filler on either of their previous records. The same inert melody loops back onto itself, over and over, until it ultimately dissipates. The drum programming that finishes off the song is at least one small turn, but it comes as too little, too late.
An accounting of MGMT’s successes would be indistinguishable from that of its failures. Every song has some hook, some charm, but none have nearly enough of either. Whereas Congratulations was almost impenetrably dense with melody and progression, the material on MGMT is stripped down to an absolute dearth of ideas. “Your Life Is a Lie,” the album’s lead single, begins with a hard-beaten cowbell, as if part of some town-crier’s call to arms. Despite this distinct sense of propulsion, the song almost immediately stalls out, sputtering over the titular phrase dozens of times during its brief, barely two-minute duration.
None of the other songs are as instantly arresting, aside from “Plenty of Girls in the Sea,” which proves to be just as fruitless and repetitive as the aforementioned single. MGMT deserves kudos for undercutting the potential misogyny of the concept with the caveat that “plenty of those are not women” — they are, after all, a band that was founded at Wesleyan University — but that kind of self-awareness doesn’t extend to the music itself, which sounds more than anything like a post-seapunk parody of Yellow Submarine. Sequenced in the penultimate position, the song feels too goofy to satisfyingly conclude even so slight a record as MGMT. Even still, the song is far preferable to the flatulent sputtering of the concluding song, “An Orphan of Fortune,” which teases some electronic transcendence halfway through, before fading out with yet another flurry of farty synths.
Fairweather fans of the debut and defenders of Congratulations alike will be disheartened by the backsliding on display here. Throughout their career, MGMT have occupied the intersection between psychedelia and juvenilia, and no matter what turns they take, they end up perched on that same corner. But this time around, they’ve put too much stock in the simplicity of the latter and the earnest aimlessness of the former. If choosing an eponymous title was an attempt to redefine the expectations surrounding the band, then they’ve succeeded, but it’s a Pyrrhic victory at best: by now, we should all know better than to expect anything at all from MGMT.