Fact: MGMT is more famous than synth-pop duos regularly mentioned on music blogs usually get. Their debut album, Oracular Spectacular, sold over 500,000 copies in the States, and they went from unknowns to major-label signees to festival headliners. They’re a big-tent band, pulling in fans across age brackets. But they don’t get played on the radio, and they certainly aren’t Lady Gaga famous. Or even Justin Bieber famous. But here’s the question: Are they famous enough to become so jaded with that fame that they can sincerely create an album meant to refute their fame and shake off fans that came around after their first album?
That’s what Andrew VanWyngarden and Ben Goldwasser have been claiming, in every promotional interview, their aim was with Congratulations, their sophomore album for Columbia. They didn’t want to expand their fame but rebut it and disappear into their music. That’s no joke meant to garner breathless NME blog posts. Congratulations shares nary a sonic smidgen with Oracular Spectacular, instead existing in a netherworld where mod-era psychedelia meets prog-rock and where the ecstatic heights of the band’s debut don’t exist.
Whereas Oracular Spectacular was an album that drew in crowds via its blissful singles (“Time to Pretend,” “Electric Feel” and “Kids”), Congratulations is an album that demands listeners jump down MGMT’s rabbit hole and enter into their trippy headspace. Dulcet surf-rock tones open the album via “It’s Working,” a meandering track that sets the table for MGMT’s newfound mellow vibes. The mod-rock plundering “Song for Dan Treacy” continues the theme, and “Someone’s Missing” adds (finally) the album’s first recognizable chorus via its closing minute.
The main problem with MGMT’s pop hook aversion here is that their take on Flaming Lips-lite prog-isms isn’t captivating enough on its own without the bleacher-shooting choruses of Oracular Spectacular. From the 14 stylistic changes on the four-minute “Flash Delirium,” to the spineless instrumental “Lady Dada’s Nightmare,” to the funhouse shlock of “Brian Eno,” this is the sound of a band turning in on itself at a moment when it could conquer the world. But those songs are just a minor warmup compared to the self-indulgence of “Siberian Breaks,” a 12-minute song that has more false endings than the last Lord of the Rings movie.
MGMT deserve some credit though: It’s a daring move to be this against what you used to be. The irony is that no matter how many fans are going to be disappointed with Congratulations (and the early guess is “a lot”), as many probably would have written the band off if it had delivered Oracular Spectacular 2. While it’s a testament to the members of MGMT that they, while signed to stuffy old Columbia, went this route with their sophomore album, we’re still left with Congratulations — a disappointing, middling album from a band that once appeared to be better than this.