Indie rock icons MGMT released their second full-length album, Congratulations, this April. Their first album, 2005’s Oracular Spectacular, was tough not to like, be it for its insanely catchy beats or its surprisingly introspective lyrics. Listening to Oracular was like being in on a dirty secret with band-members Andrew Vanwyngarden and Ben Goldwasser: hey, you guys aren’t really rock stars. You’re just college kids with the same Zeppelin and Bowie posters on your walls as me. Don’t worry, though – I got you. Listening to Congratulations was a little different.
On my first careful listen, I was only able to make it through the first three songs (“It’s Working”, “Song For Dan Treacy”, and “Someone’s Missing”) before turning it off in disgust and confusion. It is an astonishingly bad album. Congratulations dives head first into the experimental music with which they fooled around on the second half of Oracular (specifically, on songs like “Of Moons, Birds & Monsters” and “4th Dimensional Transition”). The whole album is experimental, but in the worst kind of way; MGMT miss the whole point of experimental music. The idea of the genre, in its most general definitions, is to make music in unusual ways (by using a glockenspiel, or distorted guitars, or whatever) that surprises the listener by actually sounding pretty good. That’s why the Flaming Lips and Pink Floyd and all those great bands were so successful – they made all the weird shit they do sound great. MGMT make weird music here, but left out the part about it sounding good. I can’t see how anyone could listen to it, either at a party or in a bedroom or anywhere in between, and disagree: the songs all sound terrible.
The songs sound half-finished, but I wouldn’t have it any other way lest I be subjected to more of it. Even the individual segments on the 12-minute ‘epic’ “Siberian Breaks” sound choppy and lazily made. “Breaks” is not really a 12-minute song; it’s five 2.5-minute songs thrown together into one because MGMT didn’t feel like finishing them (by the way, all five of those songs also suck). The whole album is a clusterfuck of instruments that don’t sound good together. MGMT forget that making experimental music (more accurately, good experimental music) is not a license to toss random instruments into a blender and record what comes out. Even the alternative music MGMT aspire to make needs a baseline or something to keep all the weird instrumentation from flying off the rails. “Lady Dada’s Nightmare” actually has a nice one; “Flash Delirium” has one but it’s weak and buried under all the other shit in the song. As for everything else: forget about it.
AllInMyHead’s godfather Cros has told me that the album’s saving grace is “Congratulations”, a ballad about how MGMT’s lives have changed since Oracular. The song’s straightforward and stripped-down qualities do not, however, make it necessarily good; compared to the rest of the album it’s just quieter and thus less headache inducing. To its credit, however, it is totally different from anything else on the album and a halfway normal song. Think it’s a coincidence that it’s the first single?
I have written a lot about MGMT’s flawed creative process and its miserable-sounding offspring so far. Lead singer Vanwyngarden’s worst sin on Congratulations, however, is his complete disengagement with his music. With the possible exception of “Congratulations” (which is, again, only okay as a pop song), there are no points in the album in which Vanwyngarden sings with any kind of discernible emotion. On Oracular he looked into real human feelings like insecurity (“Time to Pretend”) and bewilderment (“Kids”). They made the album about more than just Goldwasser’s dope synths and created the connection with the band that I mentioned earlier. That connection is noticeably absent here – the truth is, I have no idea what he’s singing about because his vocals are barely audible.
I guess I can handle the phenomenal arrogance MGMT displayed in assuming that people will spend money on this album simply because it is credited to the band that made Oracular. What I cannot handle is that on Congratulations, Vanwyngarden turned into an awkward hipster who’s afraid of making passionate music because he’s afraid it will make him famous. So his brilliant solution is to undermine that whole cause-effect duality (make good music; become pop star) by just making shitty music. Which leaves us with this piece of garbage, wondering if we should even care about which MGMT is the real one.