Last year, the music world celebrated the 10-year anniversary of one of the biggest accidental success stories of the modern indie rock landscape: MGMT’s Oracular Spectacular. 2007 heard Arcade Fire get religious, Radiohead mastering its musical textures and Arctic Monkeys raging out their sophomore expectations. And yet one of the most acclaimed and popular albums of that year was a psychedelic dance rock record from two shaggy-haired dudes from Wesleyan University. The world was MGMT’s oyster, but Andrew VanWyngarden and Ben Goldwasser wanted nothing to do with it. Instead of reaching for the stars with the platform they established, MGMT got weirder with their next two albums and recoiled into their own world of fuzzed-out psych-rock. While they have yet to make a complete failure of an album, it seemed like a instance of lost potential. What would’ve happened if MGMT actually tried making something fresher, brighter and more…accessible?
11 years late but certainly worth the wait, Little Dark Age is MGMT crystallizing their sound into the synth pop album they’ve seemingly had in their backpocket all along. It’s a tight 10 tracks in 44-minutes that only gets slowed down by one instrumental track (“Days That Got Away”). Aside from that, it’s a quick and musically-peppy listen. Despite some vocal harmonies and acoustic guitar flourishes here and there that harken to 60s psychedelia (especially early Pink Floyd), Little Dark Age is an extremely 80s album. VanWyngarden’s vocals bounce between Bernard Sumner’s dance club droll and Dave Gahan’s gothic growl, while the accompanying music is awash in synthesizers and electronic drums. It’s like Berlin Trilogy-era Bowie fronting Soft Cell.
Mind you, this isn’t a bad thing. Produced by frequent collaborator Dave Fridmann and ex-Chairlift member Patrick Wimberly, Little Dark Age isn’t stuck in the time frame of its influences. There’s a crispness and clarity to the production that makes the haunting keyboards of the title track and album opener “She Works Out Too Much.” Even something like “When You Die” that sounds like a lost Syd Barrett ballad or “Me and Michael” that wouldn’t be out of place on the Stranger Things soundtrack somehow don’t sound dated. Perhaps it’s the elements of chillwave on “James” or the Chvrches-meets-Hot Chip dance groove of “One Thing Left to Try” that make Little Dark Age sound well-timed in the electronic-backed modern era of alternative rock.
While it’s been mostly sanded down to make room for the poppier dance-friendly atmosphere, there are still hints of the classic MGMT weirdness throughout Little Dark Age. For one, VanWyngarden’s vocals are most supported by slight echo effects, submerging him in the mystique of “When You Die” and the title track. He and Goldwasser seem content to hide behind the shining instrumentals of the songs, compared to previous albums where their bratty attitude forces its way through VanWyngarden’s loud vocals. There are also little musical details quirky enough to be an MGMT trademark, like the warped background vocals and high-pitched keyboard going in and out of “When You Die.” “When You’re Small,” on the other hand, is a slower and more drugged-out ballad that seems like the hangover hitting after the bright glitz of the songs prior.
Another element that keeps Little Dark Age planted firmly in 2018 is its lyrics. Right from the get-go on “She Works Out Too Much,” it’s clear MGMT is out of its old influences and facing first world problems. VanWyngarden feels trapped in the social media age (“Sick of liking your selfies….But I’m constantly swiping it, tapping/It’s never relaxing”) never finding a true connection (“Nothing’s ever as easy as when/It never begins”). The album’s better when it keeps things clever and not hitting the listener over the head, like “TSLAMP.” Translating to “Time Spent Looking At My Phone,” there’s nothing subtle about it (“I try to pull the curtains back/Turn you off but can’t detach/When all I want and all I know/Is time spent looking at my phone”) and even the droning funk bass can’t break up the song’s monotony. A better use of low-key droning is heard on the title track, a haunting goth song with lyrics about some form of creeping death or the band’s own aging cool (“And the more I straighten out/The less it wants to try/The feelings start to rot/One wink at a time”). There’s still some of that young blood left in MGMT on “One Thing Left to Try,” a rebel-without-a-cause anthem that wouldn’t be lost on Oracular Spectacular (“One thing left to try/See if you can make it/Before you choose the night/And the silence overtakes you”).
While it’s missing the brash stubbornness of their previous studio albums (regardless of them being entirely memorable), Little Dark Age sounds MGMT actually trying to mature as artists. It’s briskness makes it feel like their boldest experiment despite being the easiest listen of theirs since their debut. The crossover potential has always been with the band, so its nice to hear they still have a pop sensibility. Not to say that they should go from A to Z in terms of music quality, but instead use it as a springboard for something bigger and even more bold. Little Dark Age is the reset button for MGMT and it’s nice to be excited about finishing a new album of their. Where it used to be either a disappointment or a chore to get through a new MGMT project, this one feels like a tease for something great in the future.