Album Review: MGMT - Congratulations

by Mac Wilson

MGMT - Congratulations
MGMT - Congratulations (Courtesy of Columbia Records)

One of the great pratfalls of our new, digital age is the concept of the "sophomore slump." Let's say an artist releases their debut album to hype, adulation, acclaim, and/or commercial success: the pressure is now on the artist to follow up with something that is even better yet still maintains the endearing qualities of the debut. "Succeed" and your de facto two-game winning streak will buy you another few years in the game. "Fail" and the mp3 blogs will declare you "overrated" and you'll show up on VH1's Top 100 One-Hit Wonders of the Aughts shows. It's not fair, but that's the way the game works. When it comes to second albums through history, we've seen everything from stunning successes to crushing disappointments to slapdash retreads intended to satiate the masses until the band can really reinvent themselves. The pressure has allowed countless artists to both flourish and wither with their sophomore albums.

Which brings us to MGMT.

The Current's listeners voted MGMT's debut, Oracular Spectacular, to the #1 of the Top 89 of 2008. It seemed a little hard to believe at first, but I feel it ultimately came down to a simple point: those songs sounded fantastic on the radio. "Time to Pretend," "Electric Feel," and "Kids" quickly became party jam staples that could enliven the playlist at any time of day (also becoming some of the most requested music in the history of the Current). It was made all the more remarkable by the fact that before Ben Goldwasser and Andrew VanWyngarden wound up in movie trailers and opening for Paul McCartney, they basically cooked up the songs in college just for yuks. So when it came time to record their second album, MGMT decided not to "play the game": rather than churning out another batch of hit singles, they instead pursued their own unique brand of disjointed psychedelia. The rumor was that they would release no singles from the album, in terms of aesthetics AND practicality. Not since the heyday of Eminem has a major-label artist so thumbed their nose at both industry machinations and their own past success.

But is it any good?

I expressed my very first impressions on Twitter, after listening to the album for the first time: "MGMT's Congratulations is totally baffling." The record eventually begins to take shape, but it remains a wild, madcap experience even after several listens. The songs are frenetic and fast, with the band taking a page from Of Montreal and incorporating multiple melodic movements into individual songs. Not that the individual songs are supposed to matter; the band has repeatedly hinted that this will be a "singles-free" record. The most sweeping connotation, then, is that MGMT has decided to slaughter their golden goose (the hit single) in favor of a longer body of work. It's an admirable concept, yet it's a concept that may have worked better if the fabled 'album-long-statement' weren't so consistently chaotic, heavy, and LOUD. The band may have switched producers (going from Dave Fridmann to Spacemen 3's Pete Kember) but they maintain Fridmann's affinity for enormous, disorienting swaths of (heavily-compressed) sound. For being a record that supposedly hinges on the immersive, album-length experience, Congratulations will have the ability to leave even the devotees completely drained and exhausted.

But is it any good?

With so many different melodies, moods, and sentiments spread over nine songs, it's possible to be entertained at one moment while checking your watch the next. The band does appear to have locked in on a specialty, which is a particular brand of whirring pop song that still displays a semblance of structure. "Flash Delirium" features walls of keyboards, liquid basslines, and verses-slash-bridges that nick the melody from David Bowie's "Beauty and the Beast," eventually culminating in a breathless burst of screams. At first, it's gibberish, but after a few listens, it becomes unironically catchy. Opener "It's Working" works similarly, melding more brash synths with Duane Eddy guitars over a chord progression straight out of '50s doo-wop. For all I've thus far belabored the loud passages, there are quieter moments as well, and they are among the album's best; the wispy "Someone's Missing," in particular, is a hidden gem. At first glance, the 12-minute surf epic "Siberian Breaks" and instrumental "Lady Dada's Nightmare" seem inexplicable and pretentious, but remember: Bowie used to fill entire LP sides with lengthy, washed-out instrumental passages. Whether or not you agree on MGMT's bold change of direction, there is a perverse logic in their structure and execution.

Congratulations is a bold, disorienting, sometimes abrasive album of experimentation run rampant. With this album, MGMT is answering to no one, yet everyone. It's possible they will eventually refine these sounds and ideas, and this will one day be viewed as a steppingstone on the path to a new, 21st century psychedelia that revolutionizes modern pop music. Or perhaps they will return with another record of arena-ready rock anthems, and Congratulations will be viewed as another record that they did just for yuks. At the very least, they have made an album that sounds like nothing else, and for that, they deserve recognition. As for commendableness, I may just need to give it a few more spins. Which is exactly how MGMT would want it.