MGMT Little Dark Age gets 7.5/10

MGMT
Little Dark Age
Columbia/Sony

7.5/10

MGMT have charted an interesting career trajectory. Never particularly fond of fame, the pair were at their heart primarily interested in crafting witty, tongue-in-cheek psychedelia that bridged pastoral 60s sounds and a whacky 80s throwback aesthetic. But then they inadvertently struck chart gold with three monster singles on their 2007 debut – the now-ubiquitous Kids, Time to Pretend, and Electric Feel.

Even though these songs were self-referential pop jokes, their popularity has haunted MGMT ever since. They then proceeded to intentionally befuddle (and effectively halve) their audience with the longform psychedelic excursion Congratulations, and put the final nail in the coffin of their fair-weather fans with 2013’s largely forgotten MGMT. The thing is that, despite all their experimentation, the duo are a mighty pair of tunesmiths. With nothing more left to prove, Little Dark Age sees them drop a bit of the pretense and deliver a solid album that finally strikes a balance between psychedelic playfulness and crowd-pleasing hooks.

The single Little Dark Age is the album highlight and feels like 2007 again – this is a monster track with a brilliant lead-up verse punctuated by retro bass synth stabs, and a chorus as memorable as anything you’ll hear this year. MGMT are at their strongest when they’re injecting some pop prowess into their kooky retro-psych formula. Opener She Works Out Too Much is, as its title suggests, silly to the extreme. Thankfully it’s also an insidious earworm of a song and is driven by a brilliantly loopy, herky-jerky synth riff.

Me and Michael is a memorable 80s-styled ballad that pulls out all the stops with its swelling chords and lush keyboard arpeggios. Toto would be proud. Album closer Hand It Over drops the curtain on proceedings on a similarly irresistible note, introducing some sexy funk guitar rhythms and backing harmonies to the familiar aesthetic. And it’s nice to see that the band has time to ditch (at least some of) their synths, whip out a battered acoustic and go full Syd Barrett on us with the deep cut When You’re Small – a dreamy little pastiche with lovably irreverent observations like “When you’re small / You can’t walk down the hall / When you’re small / You’re not very big at all”.

When the band gets a bit more overtly silly and psychedelic the results still work, but with an unfortunate aside – the ‘VHS lenses’ 80s throwback sound the band initially pioneered has since been adopted by artists who have twisted it in more interesting directions, rendering this current material rather nondescript. The pair of songs TSLAMP and James unfortunately sound like second-rate Ariel Pink. When You Die (actually co-written by Pink) is nihilistic and undercooked. One Thing Left to Try, with its excessive bleeps and bloops, also suffers to Pink-lite syndrome. And instrumental Days That Got Away is trippy, but forgettable. Although MGMT are too wily to commit any serious missteps, some of these songs struggle for relevance amid a sea of too much similarly-minded material these days.

Overall, MGMT put in a solid effort with their fourth, balancing an Ariel Pink fetish with some genuinely brilliant pop songs and showing the young kids that they still have a few tricks up their tye dyed wizard sleeves.

MATIJA ZIVKOVIC

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