Listening to an album shouldn't make you feel awkward.
But MGMT's sophomore effort is the musical equivalent of leaning in for a hug while someone else is going for the handshake; when it’s over, you’re left feeling embarrassed and vaguely uneasy. The Brooklyn duo releases their second album, Congratulations, today with a risky gimmick: no singles. For a band known for catchy electro-pop hits, it’s an especially dangerous gamble.
And yet it’s a risk the band seems to embrace: “I don’t know if our new album is necessarily good or not, but I know that it’s very honest, and I think that’s really important,” Andrew VanWyngarden told the New York Times. VanWyngarden, together with Ben Goldwasser, signed to Columbia Records as young grads of Wesleyan University, where they made a name as a band by playing the Ghostbusters theme over and over at house parties. Indie fame later found them when 2007's Oracular Spectacular soared to the top of the charts and to 2 million in album sales.
This new album reportedly had record execs doubting its potential (the terrible cover art probably didn’t help matters), and it’s easy to see why. There’s nothing here like the neon bombast of their synth-pop smashes “Kids” or “Time to Pretend”; instead, VanWyngarden and Goldwasser put forth nine tracks of rambling psychedelia that recall the sound of the band’s pre-Oracular EP’s, but that don’t seem to know when to quit.
Congratulations is produced by Pete “Sonic Boom” Kembler of the 80’s space-rock band Spacemen 3, and sure enough, there’s no shortage of ethereal flutes and galactic-sounding keyboards. It’s a musical paradox; the tracks are short and sputtering, but also weighed down with aimless instrumentation.
Several of the tracks here come off as strange and heaving with conscious idiosyncrasies. “Someone’s Missing” is full of falsetto verses that erupt into 45 seconds of stampeding pop before the track abruptly ends. "Lady Dada's Nightmare" sounds like a nightmarish mix of Pink Floyd and Andrew Lloyd Webber, and “Siberian Breaks” is a mind-boggling, genre-reeling 12-minute opus.
Despite their “no singles” mantra, MGMT filmed a video for the song “Flash Delirium,” a post-punk pastiche of cluttered vocals and frenetic drums that’s also been getting radio play. But here, as elsewhere, the duo burdens the track with excess noise. Is it a deliberate step away from the mainstream-grabbing pluckiness of the band’s hits? Perhaps, but good songs have hooks for a reason, and this one might be a good song if the band would dare to unbury it.
Later, MGMT takes a few swipes at wistful ballads. “I Found a Whistle” is acoustic and charmingly plaintive, and the title track is similar (“and all I need's a great big congratulations”), ending the album with smattering of applause. Hey, with a song called "Brian Eno," you have to be playing with a deck of fully-stacked irony.
Congratulations can be best described in unexpected comparisons; it sounds like a Flight of the Conchords album that takes itself seriously, or The Flaming Lips with less confetti and optimism, or a sea of tracks that all vaguely resemble 30 Rock’s mock party song “Werewolf Bar Mitzvah.”
So who is the real MGMT—the pair of hipsters penning ironic synth-hooks in headbands, or the serious songwriters who just want to craft painstaking, non-commercial surf rock? It seems here the two Brooklyn boys are backpedaling against their dance-pop fame, and maybe even attempting to reverse it. Devoted fans might enjoy this album, but for those looking for another song like “Kids,” the woozy experimentation on Congratulations will seem a bit too bloated to its limits.
Jessica Misener resists ironic headwear and can be found online at http://www.jessicamisener.com.