We can joke about Tapes ‘n Tapes and Clap Your Hands Say Yeah and the Black Kids, but has any band experienced a deeper backlash after internet buzz than MGMT? With Oracular Spectacular the hypemeisters somehow turned a solid debut record from a talented group with a few genuinely good songs into some kind of a generational touchstone. No matter what came next, fans of that fine but overrated debut would likely be unsatisfied, which made the middling, muddled follow-up Congratulations feel like more of an artistic failure than it actually is.
Perhaps MGMT felt they truly needed to earn that backlash. More likely they’re just happy to follow their own particular muse no matter how deep a coma their fans might wind up in. Either way, they’ve now released a third album that’s exactly as confused and unlistenable as everyone thought the last one was.
Imagine if the joke behind the Dukes of Stratosphear wasn’t intentional or remotely funny. That’s not far off from MGMT’s grade school approximation of psychedelic rock. Some might call this music “experimental,” but these same experiments were moldy in the ‘70s. It’s a tiresome routine of formless bleats creaking under the weight of random squiggles, reverb surges and bland vocals.
MGMT chokes on its own forced sense of whimsy. That’s evident from the start, when opener “Alien Days” dawns with a duet between a child singer and a faux-accented Andrew VanWyngarden over a bed of kazoos and synth washes, before oozing into a hapless attempt to update the Canterbury Sound with arcade blips and a busted Casio. With makeshift percussion, a wayward melody and an arms-race mentality towards instrument layering (including what sounds like a recorder), “I Love You Too, Death” sounds like a third-rate, overly busy relapse into the old New Weird America of 2003. MGMT is a sluggish and hookless tribute to Of Montreal, borrowing some of that band’s more obvious affectations without the manic chord-hopping that at least provides a bit of energy to all that preciousness.
Sometimes the tomfoolery works. There’s enough of a traditional pop song under “Introspection” to keep the whimsy afloat. “Astro-Mancy” might be the record’s only experiment in repetition that succeeds, with layers of slurred drones and noise bursts over a buoyant bassline and mechanical drumming. There are certain striking or spirited moments that roll to the surface during songs that are otherwise listless exercises in mediocrity drowned in sound effects. At least the band still gets a nice, rich tone out of their synthesizers.
Dave Fridmann’s production is the most interesting thing about this record, but even that feels old hat after the dozens of uninspired indie-rock records he’s produced since his late-’90s heyday. (Of course that list includes albums from Clap Your Hands Say Yeah and Tapes ‘n Tapes.) MGMT has written many fine songs in the past—see the trifecta of hits from the debut or the self-titled number from Congratulations—but MGMT is less a collection of worthwhile songs than a demo reel for Fridmann’s studio tricks.