Everyone knows MGMT for three songs: “Kids,” “Electric Feel,” and “Time to Pretend.”
All three appear on their 2007 debut album, “Oracular Spectacular,” and MGMT hated that. The music was meant to be sarcastic, not commercial, and so the band retreated deeper into a neo-psychedelic retaliation hole.
The effect of their retreat was immediately seen in their 2010 album, “Congratulations,” which was then followed by the self-titled “MGMT” in 2013. Both were pointedly devoid of the expansive, joyous pop hooks that had originally catapulted MGMT to fame, successfully alienating their audience and the sales that came along with them.
Five years later, MGMT seems to have reversed course. But only partially.
“Little Dark Age,” the band’s new album, is a strange and anxious synth-pop celebration, like throwing a party to commemorate your dog dying. I don’t have a dog.
We begin the album with “She Works Out Too Much,” a spastic, ‘80s decry against online dating, with vocalist Andrew VanWyngarden welcoming you “to the shitshow / Grab a comfortable seat.”
It sets the tone for a lot of what’s to come — pop hooks turned on their head, comprised of VanWyngarden’s flat wryness, “Baby, I’m ready, I’m ready, ready to blow my brains out” ( on” When You Die”).
After we sit, we’re dropped into titular track “Little Dark Age,” which is a gothic perforation of snare. It seems shocked at itself and its time period, grieving “in stereo” but “the stereo sounds strange / […] horrified / On the stage / My little dark age.”
Most of the album is characterized by a detached darkness. There’s the feeling that the band is looking out, or maybe down.
Sometimes they’re looking down on themselves, like in “TSLAMP” (“Time Spent Looking at My Phone”), which is suggestive of Depeche Mode and sees “Gods descend to take me home / Find me staring at my phone.”
Sometimes it seems like they’re just looking down on writing pop, like in the lush “Me and Michael,” swelling and reminiscent of a coming-of-age prom scene. According to VanWyngarden, it was originally written as “me and my girl” until he found it to be too boring.
Unlike past MGMT albums, though, the detachment of “Little Dark Age” doesn’t estrange its listener so much as it tells you what it thinks, unfiltered. It’s a scraggly, 20-something-year-old that regularly drops acid and tells you that eating red meat will give you cancer, but we’re all dying, so, like, whatever.
The album’s earnestness becomes more clear in the last two tracks, “When You’re Small” and “Hand it Over.”
“When You’re Small” is the album’s most gentle moment, fastened with sparse guitar twang that rises into full-band instrumentation as VanWyngarden mumbles, “When you’re small / You can curl into a ball / […] No, you’re not very big at all.”
VanWyngarden’s voice becomes even more diminutive and self-effacing in “Hand it Over,” which reintroduces MGMT’s penchant of neo-psychedelia, at times sounding like a Tame Impala deep cut. He tells us, “The deals we made to shake things up / And the rights that they abused / Might just fuck us over,” until his voice submerges in the very end of the song, imploring from very far away to “hand it over.”
I don’t know what most of the songs are about, but I think I can understand the feelings behind them. Maybe that’s the point.