MGMT - Congratulations Review

I feel like I’ve been here before. Quite recently, in fact. Last week, I ventured the not-so-original-or-provocative theory that the electronic dance outfit Hot Chip should stick to singles that clatter in the brain for days and leave album opuses to other groups, preferably those working outside their hit-friendly genre niche. This week, I parrot the same suggestion to the Brooklyn synth-pop outfit MGMT as I let Congratulations wind to a close once again. Hot Chip had the disadvantage of sticking to bubbly synths and chattering drum machines, wandering mostly in delicate, dilute Pet Shop Boys territory, while the sophomore major label LP from MGMT primarily ventures into acid pop and psych rock territory, areas which can elude criticisms by eliciting both full-steam full-lengths and instantly memorable singles to digest again and again. Unfortunately, MGMT, ahem, manages to botch both potentials, winding up with a mostly listless album of marginal appeal with hardly any songs asking to be placed on repeat.

MGMT, shrinking from a spotlight that they now seem to shun, intentionally crafted Congratulations as a reactionary statement, one that moves with deliberate if confusing purpose and yields no accessible little entryways to people looking for the next irresistible pop nugget. In other words, it’s an album from a singles band without a single to sell. No doubt it would (does) upset them to be labeled in such a fashion, but one needs only listen to Oracular Spectacular to arrive at that estimation—a modest success buoyed immeasurably by the three hits that we know by heart. By lurching away from the “easy tricks” of their sizzling synth bread-and-butter towards the foggier form of neo-psychedelia (merely dabbled with in the pastoral moodiness swimming around the hits on Oracular, and only partially successful), they’ve tried to make the choice seem bold rather than easy, even though little on here could be described as either bold or easy. There’s arty pretentiousness intact, as is their love for the off-kilter pop all-stars of yesteryear, but it mostly just drifts by in a mildly pleasant glaze that leaves little impact on round one and becomes rather dull on repetition.


To copy-and-paste again from the Hot Chip judgment, Congratulations begins on solid footing, unassuming in its patchwork pageant of sleepily erratic psych-prog (such nasty business, wouldn’t you say?). Laser guitars and rolling drums announce the album but it proves to be a false start; much of “It’s Working” is spent reimagining the LSD-laced Summer of Love chimes and sighs with the artier obstruction of Yeasayer and of Montreal, keeping the whole thing zigzagging this way and that. Then there’s “Someone’s Missing,” offering the earliest sign of a significant chorus (or any chorus whatsoever), but yields little more than a hummable climax to a song that had been drowsily itinerant up to that point. At least those two are linear and relatively uncluttered—after “Missing” comes “Flash Delirium,” the disc’s unofficial first single, which suffers from unpredictable (and, more critically, insensible) mood swings so it jars and bucks madly from one piece to the next without offering more than a few entertaining seconds here and there. Compared to “Siberian Breaks,” it’s a marvel of pertinent efficiency, though. “Breaks” begins in a mellow (in MGMT’s hands, sleepy) chamber pop haze but when they run out of material (or patience) they just do something different, apparently solely for the sake of self-indulgence...and do so for twelve tiresome minutes. There’s no motif or melody to connect all the pieces, and the changeups aren’t wonky or exhilarating enough to qualify as avant expressionism. As such, it replicates the entire album—some potential mostly wasted on curious plotting, ostentatious imagining, and mishandled execution.


Upon reflection, Congratulations isn’t as off-putting and oblique as many have already suggested. There are several hooky moments buried beneath the alternately sepia/kaleidoscopic veneer. “I Found a Whistle” offers a rare eruption of gusto with the vocals peeling through organs, synths, and, yes, whistles, but what the duo has to say—“Found a whistle that works every time”—doesn’t exactly stir the spirit. “Brian Eno,” despite the inherent sacrilege of its “name drop,” is actually one of the second half’s most delectable cuts for sheer, schlocky exuberance, but coming after the distended, fragmented slog of “Siberian Breaks,” even the most tepid of hooks would have sounded catchy as hell. Nevertheless, MGMT seems preoccupied with burying the hooks in overly dense productions, as if they were trying to prove that baroque and psychedelic have far more in common than we pretend.


Precious few could be described as murky, but overly busy is apt. Several songs are tricked out with a surfeit of ornamental additions that drown, twinkle, sigh or bubble. Were these included solely for their opaque, irregular qualities? Based solely on melody and hooks, they certainly don’t make any of these tunes more lush or memorable. I imagine they were going for Brian Wilson-sized ambition but lack his level of harmonic ear and pop brilliance; other times, they’re clearly aping Syd Barrett’s skewed distress and quaint peculiarities, but to pull that off you need to be, well, as skewed, distressed and quaintly peculiar as Syd Barrett.


For instance, “Lady Dada’s Nightmare” (appropriately named for its faux-Dadaist intention and tacky haunted house effects) is a fairly aimless instrumental that might have been more effective if atmosphere or tongue-in-cheek chicanery had been in the cards. You feel it start to pull you in but then it goes nowhere substantial (where’s Daniel Snaith when you need him?)—again, indicative of the piece as a whole. As for the title cut that closes the album, even with its “The Weight”-inspired melody, the tune is hamstrung by its poor choice of heavy-lidded tempo serving as album climax—not every LP needs to end with a bang, but one as indolent as this one demands better. Strangely, the album’s preoccupation with mood and mystique that causes it to slumber frequently arises the accusation of overlength, but with so few tunes or snippets that stick, when it comes to a close, I instead ponder, “That’s it? It’s over already?” This is not a case of an act leaving us wanting more, but the tragedy of an act leaving us wanting something more engaging. No wishes of happy returns are in order for Congratulations; I’d actually rather sit through “Kids” or “Time to Pretend” for the 450th time than unravel this middling effort again. I’d prefer not try to shoehorn them to their previous commitments, and we can all celebrate their desire to avoid making Oracular Spectacular 2, but how many great albums are produced in reaction to the public opinion of the group itself?

"Congratulations" is on sale April 13, 2010 from Columbia.

Matt Medlock


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