MGMT - Congratulations
Tim Miller 16/07/2010
Three months on - why it's only now that it starts to make sense...
I'll cut to the chase here: when Congratulations was released on 12 April 2010, I was supposed to get around to reviewing it. I listened to it a lot. I quite liked it. There seemed to be plenty to say, but at the same time, it was a difficult album to really get under the skin of, and ultimately, I didn't.
But it's been an album I've been coming back to time and time again over the last three months. Whether it was snatches of melody or echoes of voices, songs from MGMT's second album etched themselves in my head: vague mumbled vocals I didn't realise I knew, guitar motifs I hummed without knowing where they'd come from, and odd swirls of sound that could only really have come from the unpredictable duo.
The stark issue with Congratulations, you see, is that the instantaneous pop appeal that permeated Oracular Spectacular has been forcefully and deliberately avoided; this being the long player Andrew Van Wyngarden and Ben Goldwasser would rather have delivered before now. Indeed, the duo behind MGMT have significant qualms about their debut - often at pains to explain how 'Kids' was a diva-ish pastiche, for instance - and the pair's psychedelic overtones that were in evidence on Oracular, worn on their sleeves this time around, make for a more testing listen.
Over time, though, the album starts to make sense. First track 'It's Working' provides Congratulations with a racing, space-hopping opening, the vocals owing much to Sixties rock'n'rollers, the song building to a crescendo as layers of instruments (strings, harpsichords, percussion) and group harmonies collide at pace.
And this structural and sonic formula serves MGMT well for much of the second LP. Genre influences are hardly latent and through the nine tracks on Congratulations there are numerous nods to a wealth of Sixties luminaries: take your pick from The Doors, The Byrds, The Zombies and Pink Floyd, all of whose legacies are alluded to by Messrs Van Wyngarden and Goldwasser at various points.
The irrepressibly enjoyable 'Song For Dan Treacy', for example, might have come straight out of a Byrds jam, all erratic organs, jangling guitars and lo-fi shuffling drums. It builds in intensity, as before, toward an outro that chimes, with a cheery menace, “He made his mind up/he's gonna get it done”. 'Flash Delirium', the song deemed most radio-friendly prior to the album's release (MGMT maintained they would not release singles from Congratulations), is almost self-explanatory: a superb, bewildering labyrinth of ideas, segments, sounds and melodies, all under four and a half minutes. Before that, 'Someone's Missing' grows from a dreamy slow jam into a timeless-sounding march that steals its familiar descending bassline from, among many other classics, Jackson 5's 'I Want You Back'.
'I Found a Whistle' is perhaps the track here that most resembles the band's debut, with a simple vocal melody and waltzing chord progression. But after the rather brilliant central piece to the album - the overtly Floydian 12-minute psychedelic magnum opus 'Siberian Breaks' - things get a little strange. That is, a little more strange. Aforementioned song is followed by MGMT's second 'ode' of the album, to 'Brian Eno', a song that sounds like a reimagining of the retro Batman TV theme. 'Lady Dada's Nightmare', meanwhile, is a wordless, awkward swirl of noise that eventually blows itself out and into the final track 'Congratulations'.
MGMT have been quoted saying that their second album is unavoidably about fame and success, something clear in the lyrics to their doleful title track: “It's hardly sink or swim/When all is well if the tickets sell”. It was the dazzling parade of songs on Oracular Spectacular that provided MGMT with their success. But while that album was critically acclaimed across the mainstream music press, the band defended its ironic focus, on an imagined rock stardom, and have been at pains to stress how this second LP is really them: their natural musical state. Clearly, then, as this site has commented previously, making commercially viable music is not what they like to do.
Congratulations is, instead, Andrew Van Wyngarden and Ben Goldwasser's response to the surprising success achieved on the back of their debut. That they achieved it with a record that, they felt, didn't represent what their music was about, means this follow up is pointedly light years away from 'Kids' et al, and as a result, the next time you hear MGMT on the radio, chances are it won't be anything from this second release. But this makes sense, because MGMT were never trying to get on the radio.
It also makes sense because MGMT remain great songwriters, and at the heart of much of Congratulations are great songs. It's just that this time around, they've gone back to basics, borrowing a slew of enduring influences, making popular music the way it was made when popular music was still in its infancy. It might not make sense to everyone who <3ed Oracular Spectacular - at least, not at first, and it's perhaps telling that little has been heard about MGMT since the fervour around the April release. But MGMT's slow-burning second album has longevity, and a proper appeal founded on their favoured hallmarks of classic sounds and songwriting. Given a bit of patience, Congratulations might just be due some plaudits come the end of this year.