Album Review: MGMT - Little Dark Age

The great irony of MGMT’s already greatly ironic single Time to Pretend is the success it brought them. Despite skewering the rockstar lifestyle and pop music itself, Time to Pretend was the first of three surprise hits from the American indie duo. Three hits they’ve been running away from ever since. Their debut album, 2007’s Oracular Spectacular, spent its second side immersed in freaky, jagged psychedelia. In 2010, they released Congratulations, an ingenious twisting of pop sensibilities into mesmerising prog rock shapes that – in my opinion – is not only their best album but one of the best albums of the decade. Their 2013 self-titled follow-up experimented further but failed to incorporate their songwriting talents as smartly, resulting in a fascinating but inaccessible experience. Then, they disappeared.

That is until they released Little Dark Age, the lead single and title track from their first album in nearly five years. Oozing with gothic synth-pop influence, this spectacular song marked a return to the poppier days of Time to Pretend with an exhilarating twist. Three more singles preceded the album’s release, all of them indicating a project packed with potential. Now we have the album, I can confidently say it was worth the wait. Opening track She Works Out Too Much revels in quirky pseudo-pop reminiscent of lo-fi legend Ariel Pink. Which makes sense, considering Pink himself performs on the track. He also shares writing credits on When You Die, a swirling, psychedelic voyage to the underworld bathed in exotic synths and trippy laughter.

Many have touted Little Dark Age as a return to MGMT’s pop roots…The wild ideas they’ve experimented with since are still present. The duo have just used them in smarter, more accessible ways, resulting in an album as catchy as it is bonkers.
– Nathan Brooks

In fact, the hypnagogic pop pioneer’s influence permeates throughout the record. This works best when combined with MGMT’s knack for melody, such as on Me & Michael and TSLAMP, two synth-pop tunes boasting some of the duo’s richest choruses. Where it doesn’t quite land is on the track James. Due to lead singer Andrew Vanwyngarden adopting Pink’s trademark baritone vocal style, the melodic range is restricted and MGMT’s identity is muddled. However, One Thing Left to Try soon revitalises the album with vibrant and expressive new wave zest. Days That Get Away also satisfies MGMT’s experimental side, resembling a more focused take on the self-titled album’s psych-coated electronic rock. The instrumentation on these songs is some of the duo’s most elaborate and thoughtful yet, feeding an eclectic range of sounds and styles through a compelling pop framework.

Little Dark Age also features some of MGMT’s best lyrics. Tracks like When You Die and Little Dark Age indulge in the same cryptic poetry of their weirder work but elsewhere is more grounded in reality. She Works Out Too Much is a biting satire of social media oversharing from the hilarious perspective of a relationship that didn’t work out because “he didn’t work out”. TSLAMP’s commentary on phone addiction could sound out of touch, but like Arcade Fire’s Everything Now it’s more introspective than it initially appears. When You’re Small tackles vulnerable feelings of insignificance with a twisted whimsy that recalls Pink Floyd founder Syd Barrett. Finally, the gorgeous closing track Hand it Over criticises blind submission to power, appropriately leaving out any details to maintain its timelessness.

Many have touted Little Dark Age as a return to MGMT’s pop roots. Whilst this is true to an extent, the wild ideas they’ve experimented with since are still present. The duo have just used them in smarter, more accessible ways, resulting in an album as catchy as it is bonkers. I doubt MGMT are going to find the same levels of success as before; the charts have changed significantly since 2008. However, for fans of skilfully crafted, psych-tinged synth-pop, look no further than Little Dark Age.