Stoner rock. That’s the category that the Weselyan-formed pop duo MGMT find themselves clumped into by the passing listener, and it’s understandable why. The band’s most prominent singles, 2008’s “Electric Feel” and “Kids,” eschewed the pop format with abstract lyrics and cryptic music videos, all drenched in a mix of reverb, colorful synthesizers and tight dance grooves. In a time where banality was the norm in mainstream radio, MGMT’s sound captured the hearts of ordinary music listeners with its spirit of wild-eyed wonder and festivity.
Still, to cast off MGMT as stoner rock is to see them as a mere blip on the mainstream music radar and nothing more. In reality, MGMT’s 2008 singles served as only a preview of their musical ambition that was to come. In 2010, the band released its sophomore LP, “Congratulations,” which drove away pop listeners and attracted a new following. The album combined baroque pop, electro, and psychedelic rock in a way that demonstrated high-caliber musicianship and some seriously sophisticated songwriting.
And now, MGMT has released their third, self-titled LP. Critics have paired the album with the word “experimental,” an adjective that provides only a small picture of its true character. For one, MGMT showcases the band at its most primal. Tracks like “Alien Days” and “Plenty of Girls in the Sea” feel, at their core, like folk songs inspired by Willie Nelson or Woody Guthrie. True, Willie Nelson didn’t employ decaying electric guitars or a barrage of bleeping synthesizers. Still, the point remains clear; for a band that conjures an exceptionally diverse range of musical influences, MGMT have never sounded as in touch with their rock and pop roots as they do on this album.
Moments like “Plenty of Girls in the Sea” draw the listener in with an endearing, inviting energy. One of MGMT’s strengths has always been the way they mix their whimsical sound with a poignant, earnest delivery. On “MGMT,” the band brings this dichotomy to a whole new level. The track “Introspection,” with its beat that trucks along under a series of I-IV-V chord progressions, sounds like a cut from an unreleased Raffi album. It’s silly, it’s lovable, and despite the slew of synthetic, out-of-tune pan-flutes, you find yourself strangely moved.
It’s worth noting that the album’s production is markedly different from its predecessor. Whereas “Congratulations” was tight and bubbly, “MGMT” is skuzzy and spacey, with drum tracks that shake and reverberate like those from Led Zeppelin’s “Physical Graffiti.” The track “Cool Song No. 2,” with its broken piano and vocal break, remarkably echoes The Beatles’ “White Album.”
MGMT isn’t at all afraid to get spacey on this album, an approach that produces some arguably less-than-stellar results. Songs like “I Love You Too, Death” have the same sentimentality that MGMT captures so well but leave the listener with a sonic portrait of a MGMT too far in the distance to hear clearly.
Production aside, “MGMT” remains an absolutely strong and solid effort from a band that consistently manages to produce stimulating, ambitious and spiritually moving music. This time, the group hones in on a warm and intimate folk-inspired sound, counterbalanced by the use of some of the coldest and most stadium-sized textures to ever be heard on an MGMT album. It’s contradiction, but then again, contradictions are what make MGMT so freakin’ good.
Howard is a member of
the class of 2017.