Dear MGMT: 'Congratulations' for what exactly?

MGMT’s new album, Congratulations, leaked online. So the band cleverly began to stream the new record on their site. In an even smarter move, the group punctuated the appearance of the album’s music with this simple statement:

Hey everybody, the album leaked, and we wanted you to be able to hear it from us. We wanted to offer it as a free download but that didn’t make sense to anyone but us

In many ways this statement says why the band has become so successful on the whim of a couple singles. In so many words, they play the “rockstar card” just right. The simple statement on their site ensures that fans and haters alike know that they are rebels who are ahead of the curve. Because MGMT is the only band to ever want to release their album for free, ever, period*.

In their early review of the MGMT album, Stereogum hit the rock star nail on the head:

MGMT are natural, charismatic rock stars in an age when younger bands get bigger fast, but rarely have the attitudes or look or whatever to back it up.

The band’s predilection towards image certainly explains why the group fits into that comfortable indie-yet-mainstream niche that plenty of acts light-years ahead of MGMT in talent have built up for them to sit upon. They look like rock stars should, they seem to act like rock stars do and they are all up in the revivalism of the greatest decade of rock’n'roll’rockstar excess, the ’60s. Whereas good looks may also help explain a certain amount of the mainstream success of Vampire Weekend**, MGMT has certainly carried their image out to their “psychedelic” extremes in garb, music videos and the pages of Vogue.

It, in part, explains why hype-addled rags like NME have been so taken by the group and why old geezer magazines, musicians and record lables like Rolling Stone, Paul McCartney and Columbia Records have also taken a shine to the band. They produce 60s-flavored rock archetypes from the tips of their psychedelic shades to the last sound on their slightly distorted keyboard.

With all the hype one band can possibly handle, MGMT has a lot of pressure to measure up against. With the release of the single “Flash Delirium” a little while ago left some people scratching their heads. Is the band openly shunning their hit-making formula to challenge their audience and prove themselves as artists? Or is this merely, as Hipster Runoff asked , something of a rockstar ruse, a wolf in sheep’s clothing made to look like authentic artistry?

I’m no fan of MGMT, but I decided to give the album a whirl. It would be daft and reckless to simply turn my nose down on an album I have yet to listen to, especially as I’ve been so forthright in how I feel about the band. Given that the new album is apparently different from the over-hyped and underwhelming Oracular Spectacular, my previous thoughts of the band shouldn’t matter, should they? I’ve changed my mind about bands in the past, and hey, I can appreciate when bands with the world at their feet go to extremes in creating a package for their newest album. (Though the cover is still terrible.)

Yet, Congratulations musters anything but such a proclamation. The first listen to “It’s Working,” the lead-off track made me think of a scene from Walk Hard***  in which Dewey Cox is creating his “masterpiece.” In the scene, Cox sits in a mammoth studio with a venerable chorus from every continent, with every imaginable instrument pitching in, not to mention a few animals and one loud car horn. At one point when is band-mates question the song, Cox defends the track by saying:

It’s still not finished yet. I’m hearing… more Aboriginal percussionists. And I want an army of didgeridoos. Fifty thousand didgeridoos!

The scene is simple: It’s making fun of the grandiosity of ’60s drug-inspired “masterpieces” by taking it to the extreme. The fictional Cox song is a joke, and so is MGMT’s “It’s Working.” It’s bloated, feels endless, a little rambling and the song packs in as many instruments into a few minutes you wonder what the point is. “It’s Working” is funny, but certainly not in the way that MGMT fans would want it to be.

Much of Congratulations follows a similar trajectory. On the rambling end, there’s “Siberian Breaks,” a song that sounds like a Beatles Z-side, runs well past 12 minutes and feels thrice as long, and just doesn’t hold any weight. On the bloated side is “I Found A Whistle,” a pointless journey of a track that ends with a cheesball of a melody that sounds like a collection of the worst tunes the disco era produced. On the endless side is “Brian Eno,” a song you just want to end by the second time one hear’s Eno’s name slightly mispronounced for the sake of a rhyme.

What may be the epitomal tune of the mess of an album is the song that was selected as Congratulations‘ first single, “Flash Delirium.” It crams one-too-many movements into the tune, moving from what sounds like MGMT doing a Spoon impression to some rather tawdry melodies. The track reeks of a group trying to make a massive masterpiece, but focusing too much on trying to “make a masterpiece” than trying to make a good song. Or good album at that.

Just as the band represents an image of what a lot of people love about rockstars and ’60s era music, MGMT’s Congratulations represents the oft-overlooked negative aspects of ’60s pop. It’s bloated musical nonsense that’s simply full of itself. As some folks have already been happy to place MGMT into some sort of Gen Y cultural canon, Congratulations poses an interesting query. Is this MGMT’s Paul’s Boutique?

Nope. If Congratulations is any indication, the band is less Beastie Boys and more Better Than Ezra: A band with a brief fling with fame in the guise of a few hits and then… well, who knows.

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**That may open up a can/box/contraption holding worms that would merit another couple dozen posts. But, even without any scientific proof on hand, one can (unfortunately) factor looks into the equation of levels of popularity in mainstream pop music. Think of how many posters of teeny-boppers must have been sold alongside records.

***Yes, I’ve seen Walk Hard, and yes, it’s kind of a dumb movie. But, it’s got a few funny moments.


2 Comments Add Yours ↓

  1. 1

    I disagree with you on MGMT’s first album (I loved it), but yeah, Congratulations sucks. HARD. It’s an unwieldy mixture that sounds, at different times, like poorly done versions of the B-52’s, Syd Barret era Pink Floyd, Roxy Music, and T-Rex. I give them credit for doing something different, but only so much, since they didn’t do that something different well at all.

  2. 2

    I have to say that “Congratulations” is un-listenable (word? like “un-digestible,” but for sounds), but “Oracular Spectacular” never fails to send me into a state of mild euphoria.

    I am severely depressed to be deprived of the same level of deliciousness.

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