MGMT Congratulations review: Intro
MGMT’s new album, Congratulations, is out on 12 April, and it’s a decidedly dramatic departure from the pop hooks and contemporary dance references that so characterised their last outing, Oracular Spectacular.
The world went collectively mad for Oracular Spectacular. Something about the stylish synthesizers, playful lyrics and ever-so-far-out delivery resonated with hipsters and the mainstream alike and rocketed MGMT to unexpected fame.
But maybe fame didn’t sit right with Ben Goldwasser and Andy VanWyngarden (AKA MGMT). This, their third album (if you include 2005's Climbing To New Lows), plays like a reaction to - or against - their dizzying ascent to stardom.
Congratulations is a psychedelic epic that wears its references on its sleeve - The Doors, Love, The Beach Boys and, bizarrely, cult '80s neo-psych outfit Television Personalities are all here. It's safe to say MGMT are not looking for a Justice remix this time around.
So, what gives? This sprawling chimera of an album is either MGMT putting a spanner in the spokes of their own success or - as is much more likely - actually being true to themselves…
It's Working was the first track demoed for the album and it immediately marks its patch a bold distance from Oracular Spectacular.
In place of the grumbling synthesizers and neon electronica you might have been expecting, the track builds its house on harpsichords, flutes and Zombies-esque guitars. What’s more, the hook - and there most definitely is one - takes a good 12 bars to reveal itself.
This is not 'psych rock inspired' like Oracula - this is full-blown, glorious bar-for-bar psych rock pastiche.
Perhaps predictably for a psych track, It’s Working is also about drugs. What’s more curious, however, is that it’s not about LSD. It’s about all the ecstasy the boys regret gobbling up in the early throes of their success.
Song For Dan Treacy
Song For Dan Treacy underlines MGMT’s plan to head out into psych territory.
Treacy (of cult UK outfit Television Personalities) isn’t the only musical figurehead to get a song title on the album, but his name this early on is a big nod to the sort of influences at play here: late '60s psychedelia for sure, but also the playful neo-psychedelia of the '80s.
Song For Dan Treacy opens with Kinks-style guitars and a tinny bassline; these give way to a spooky Hammond organ that wails its way through the chorus. Everything harks back to a bygone age of body painting, bad trips and analogue instruments. Cool.
Congratulations was co-produced by Pete 'Sonic Boom' Kember, the drone master from Spaceman 3, and Dave Fridmann, who produced Oracular Spectacular and is well-known for his work with Flaming Lips and his old band Mercury Rev.
While Kember is a dominant force throughout Congratulations, it's on Someone’s Missing that Fridmann’s touch comes to the fore. Indeed, the track's delicate opening, with its fragile acoustic guitars and echo-drenched vocals, could almost be Mercury Rev.
However to keep the psych vibe up, there are - of course - some sitars and spacey keyboards on hand but no one could guess what happens next. In a whirlwind of harps and synthesizers, this fragile ballad transforms into a pumping glam funk track, complete with tambourines and cowbells. Surprise!
Flash Delirium is the track you’re most likely to have heard from Congratulations.
And maybe they were right. Heard alone, Flash Delirium was and still is unexpectedly weird, scatterbrained and indecisive.
It features vocals from Royal Trux’s Jennifer Herrema and tears through influences including the Sgt Pepper period Beatles, Love and T. Rex before it finally settles into its stride in a Phil Spector-esque Wall of Sound.
Flash Delirium was possibly the first track off the blocks because it’s a microcosm of the album. Alone, it’s frenetic and unpredictable. In context, it works.
I Found A Whistle
After the crescendo that ends Flash Delirium, I Found A Whistle opens in suitably humble style.
Phasing organs and buzzing synths mingle with acoustic guitars, again sounding more like Mercury Rev and The Flaming Lips than The Monochrome Set.
For all those getting a touch psyched out, I Found A Whistle is where MGMT deliciously blur the boundaries. Speaking to Spin magazine, Ben Goldwasser said that Congratulations was “like a soul record”.
While it’s difficult to detect the soul influences in all the defiant oddness elsewhere, in I Found A Whistle it comes to the fore. The song builds to a powerful climax, featuring booming drums, multiple harmonies and tinkling pianos.
If it wasn’t for the theremin this could be Percy Sledge. Really.
It’s almost unfair to discuss Siberian Breaks in a track-by-track review because it feels like more than one track. In 12 minutes, it carries out the promises made by Flash Delirium and changes shape constantly and without warning.
Andrew Vanwyngarden has said Siberian Breaks is about eight different songs strung together - and listening to it again, eight might be underestimating things.
The song begins in the same folkadelic territory as Song For Dan Treacy but steadfastly refuses to stay put. Over its full course, Siberian Breaks grows to accommodate distorting synthesizers, stadium-sized drums and a change of time signature.
It passes through a shimmering synthtopia to a powerful glam chorus (of sorts) and finally runs out of steam in an ambient delirium of bleeping synths.
The sections sometimes blend seamlessly together and sometimes jar uncomfortably but you have to admire the ambition of this rag-tag monolith.
This isn’t, as you might expect, an ambient whitewash. It’s a dark, up-tempo number driven by a manic new wave bassline and piercing Hammond organs…
The initial basis for Brian Eno was recorded at 1:30am in MGMT’s home studio, although just how much of that late-night version made it onto the album is unclear.
What’s for sure is that, unlike anything else on Congratulations, Brian Eno pulsates with a raw urgency and what feels like heart-pumping terror.
The song rages through distorting guitars and organs to a clearing of ghostly synths and echoing vocals. The constantly breaking rhythm and overt reference to pop’s great experimenter provide more evidence that MGMT are bidding to escape the mainstream.
Lady Dada's Nightmare
For once, let’s ignore the title - this instrumental piece owes far more to '60s surf pop than it does to Dadaism or Lady Gaga.
Andy VanWyngarden said that surfing was a principle influence on Congratulations - Siberian Breaks is (apparently) about surfing in the Antarctic and there are definitely Beach Boys moments scattered throughout the record.
And in Lady Dada’s Nightmare, there is more than a little Brian Wilson. In fact so much so, the song plays like a Pet Sounds homage. There are ghostly organs, jarring minor and major chord interactions and the same pleasantly ringing metallic guitars…
And then the screaming starts.
The final track returns to the jangling '60s pop stylings of Waterloo Sunset. It’s smooth and charming and sidesteps the awkward hooks of the rest of the album.
But it’s Congratulations' lyrics here that are most important. As Andy VanWyngarden sings that all he wants are your congratulations, he reveals the whole point of the album.
MGMT don’t need - or necessarily want - a big selling album. They want recognition and credibility. And they deserve them.
Congratulations is an exciting step away from over-used pop tropes and a bold leap into the unknown.
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