There are two breeds of MGMT fans. There are those who fell in love with their chart-topping psych pop debut Oracular Spectacular and its triptych of hit singles, and hold out hope that one day the band will return to its roots; and there are those who prefer the band’s subsequent albums, off-kilter genre experiments that seemed to dismiss at the very idea of mainstream approval. While it’s not clear that Little Dark Age will satisfy either group, it’s likely to hit the sweet spot for those in the middle, who enjoy a little weirdness but don’t mind a hook or two. Little Dark Age has both in spades, signalling a return to form for MGMT — one that’s been reached on their own terms.
While the album is as strange as can be expected, it also has a remarkable consistency that keeps it from being a messy pastiche of disconnected ideas and genres. Guided by synths, a lyrical focus on death, and pitch black humour, Little Dark Age is full of new ideas, most of which stick. There’s the satirical bent of opener “She Works Out Too Much,” which samples workout videos and sounds like the soundtrack to a spacey calisthenics class, matched by the wry humour of the acoustic “When You’re Small,” a Mollusk-era Ween inspired tune full of nostalgia and malaise. Co-written by Ariel Pink, whose fingerprints are all over this record, “When You Die” is a deliciously sinister humdinger that features standout lines like “Go fuck yourself, you heard me right” and “We’ll all be laughing when you die.”
The mood of the album is an angsty 80s teenager with a Cure poster on his bedroom window, and that mood is never better captured than in single “Little Dark Age,” the best song the band has written in a decade. Catchy and confident, the song is Robert Smith meets Kraftwerk with evocative lyrics and a robotic vocal from Andrew VanWyngarden. In fact, the first five songs on the album are all killer no filler, capped off with the campy love song “Me and Michael” and technologically obsessed “TSLAMP.”
The album loses its focus a little in the second half, whether it be in the inventive but underwhelming “Days That Got Away” or the forgettable “James,” a song that sounds like it was written on acid because it actually was. By the album’s closer, the calm and dreamy “Hand It Over,” the album’s dark mood and ironic tone begin to exhaust, as VanWyngarden croons “the joke’s worn thin” as though in admission.
Little Dark Age is derivative — perhaps self consciously so — and its synth pop tunes never reach far beyond the band’s comfort zone. But those who’ve waited more than 10 years for MGMT to make another pop song should be pleased, and the rest of us have a lot here to enjoy, too.
Words by Max James Hill