Little Dark Age, the spiritual and artistic successor to MGMT’s debut album Oracular Spectacular, is a fantastic album. Allow me to explain.
From the release of their first EP, Time to Pretend, MGMT revealed a unique gift for well-crafted, supremely catchy, unique synth-pop singles. Songs like ‘Kids’, ‘Time to Pretend’, and ‘Electric Feel’ off their debut were lusciously fun, light in tone but dripping with character. When MGMT finally came down from the success of their debut, they returned to the studio to create what would become a divisive album amongst fans, Congratulations. While the album was critically as adored as Oracular, the material dove far beyond the accessibility of their debut, and into a more dynamic and psychedelic approach. Their 2013 self-titled record saw the band straying further from the day-glo sensitivities of Oracular, and into a more indie-rock realm that felt ill-suited for their production antics. It was here that MGMT’s perception started to fade not only with fans, but with critics as well, as their self-titled record fared far worse ratings-wise then their previous releases. Stuck in this grey area with fans and critics alike, it took the band over 4 years to determine what their next artistic endeavor would be. While this is the longest gap the band had taken to date between projects, the material on Little Dark Age shows no signs of degradation from it.
Little Dark Age reestablishes MGMT as one of the preeminent synth-pop acts in music today.
For 10 tracks, 45 minutes, MGMT packs each song here with enveloping, nostalgic production and musical passages that at times are both unsettling and saccharine. The opening track, ‘She Works Out Too Much’ is a perfect example of this, with vocal chops from an imagined exercise tape overlaying with a frenetic and groovy instrumental. The title track of this record, ‘Little Dark Age’, is arguably the most fulfilling song on the album. It’s dark, gripping, at points almost haunted, but MGMT never lets that cloud out the intense groove that runs throughout the song. Songs like ‘James’ and ‘Me and Michael’, in contrast, are far glossier in both tone and production, but no less cease to hold your attention in place. Both these songs rest in a gleeful, layered, nostalgic synth-pop space that suits singer Andrew VanWyngarden’s voice just as well as it did on Oracular. These songs are heavily indebted to the stylings of Ariel Pink, who is credited as a co-writer on at least one song on this album (the jangly and cutting ‘When You Die’). ‘TSLAMP (Time Spent Looking At My Phone)’ is a biting critique of phone addiction, as well as one of the most laid-back tracks on the album.
The instrumental passage ‘Days That Got Away’ creates a bit of a lull in the back of the album, but ‘One Thing Left To Try’ brings the tempo back with a shiny, unsettling beat and a refrain asking “Do you want to keep us alive? Do you want to feel alive?”. ‘When You’re Small’ is a spacey, spooky ballad that would have fit snuggly within (and would have been one of the best songs on) their self-titled record. It transitions nicely into the final song on the record ‘Hand It Over’. The pillowy vocals and swaying instrumentation act as a soft landing for the album (even if the harsh lyrics were written about the election of Donald Trump as president).
What the album may lack in an overarching theme, it more than makes up for it in some of the stickiest melodies to come out so far this year. It took 9 years for MGMT to circle back to their eccentric synth-pop roots, but this album more then makes up for lost time. Little Dark Age reestablishes MGMT as one of the preeminent synth-pop acts in music today.
Words by Sebastian Campbell