September 20, 2013

MGMT_Cover_ArtJonah Bromwich taught A$AP Ferg how to put in work.

The conventional wisdom: MGMT made a minor indie masterpiece with Oracular Spectacular. Then they weren’t man enough to handle the resulting success – they crept inside themselves and became a small band that was unwilling to even attempt to match the bombast of their first, and inevitably best album.

That’s certainly a lens you could use to evaluate MGMT, the group’s self-titled third record. But it’s a view that will find you missing the best parts of an extremely interesting listen. Though there are parts of the album that are overcooked and under-thought, to my mind, “Alien Days,” “Introspection,” “Your Life is a Lie,” “Astromancy,” and “Plenty of Girls in the Sea,” are very worthy songs, three of which are on my shortlist for tracks of the year. That’s half an album’s worth of high quality music.

For all the fanfare given to the idea that MGMT is trying to avoid pop by any means necessary, these songs are remarkably catchy, easy to memorize, and easy to fall in love with. Many of them are befitted with a surprising number of bells and whistles—but their structure and pacing helps to normalize what might otherwise be songs that seem too odd to get a grasp on.

There’s some truth to the criticism that MGMT are trying to be weird for the sake of weirdness, but that’s an instinct that we don’t automatically dismiss when exhibited by other artists. There’s a really obvious example of a critically beloved artist with inescapable pop instincts who tried as hard as he could to get away from them this year. His album was accepted relatively quickly as a masterpiece.

That’s not to say that MGMT is the indie-rock version of Yeezus — it’s far less visceral and doesn’t gesture towards anything truly new for a genre that has seen all manner of quirky ideas, forks jammed into guitar strings, etc. In the lofty comparison department, the album that the best parts of MGMGT remind me of is Brian Eno’s Here Come the Warm Jets. That album was full of psychedelic riffs and flourishes, odd incomprehensible songs dressed up in zany outfits that still failed to disguise how pure the pop was that lay underneath. It had few missteps and was extraordinarily progressive, but many of the factors that separate the best songs on MGMT from those on Here Come the Warm Jets have to do with the way we categorize and digest art-rock now.

It is difficult to criticize without context, but in the case of MGMT, the band’s narrative is shaping the reaction to its new music. “Alien Days,” for instance, is simply one of the best songs of the year—were it to have come out of left field, it would have been greeted as such. It’s pointless to complain about the way music is absorbed and reported on now (inevitably, things are processed quickly) – but the arc of MGMT’s output is hurting the way that they’re currently received. These guys want to make off-kilter music that doesn’t appeal to the mass of electro-pop fans that gravitated toward their first album, and there’s nothing inherently bad about that. They are trying to get away from what made them popular – but as much as they want to be hated there are plenty of parts on MGMT that you can’t help but love.

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