Rock rarely sees a rise as meteoric as MGMT’s. A Brooklyn-born brainchild of Wesleyan University students Andrew VanWyngarden and Ben Goldwasser, the now five-piece has gone from relative obscurity to full-blown international superstardom, and may just be the most unlikely candidates for the job. While their career launching debut, 2007’s Oracular Spectacular, spawned two of the most ubiquitous radio hits of the decade in “Kids” and “Electric Feel,” even the band admits that the rest of the album was a tough pill to swallow.
“We’d play a song like “Future Reflections” or “The Handshake” from the later part of the album to a pretty full crowd, and I remember thinking, ‘Why are all these people here to hear these really weird songs that were made by two guys who were really just screwing around?’” recalls drummer Will Berman. “I was kind of amused that people would actually follow with it.”
And follow they did, with England’s NME naming Spectacular the best album of the year in 2008, and Rolling Stone calling it the 18th best record of the decade in 2009. Über-catchy singles or no, MGMT was dishing up some of the quirkiest electro rock the world had heard in years, and everyone in the biz was curious to see what they’d do next.
Flash forward a year-and-a-half to the present, and you’ll find Congratulations, the band’s tongue-in-cheek titled follow-up to their unintentional opus. As a sophomore effort, the record avoids all the potential clichéd slumps by ignoring the rulebook altogether. Gone are the bouncy synth hooks and dance floor-ready sing along lyrics. In there place we get 12-minute, psych-influenced flights of grandeur (“Siberian Breaks”) and fast-paced, dancehall-esque odes to ambient musicians (“Brian Eno”).
“It reflects a mood of uncertainty that everybody was feeling after the last tour and not knowing musically what direction we wanted to take,” says Berman of the album. “It’s definitely more of a melancholy sounding album, but it also has moments where it’s very frantic. I guess it’s the sound of being a little bit confused. I imagine that if I listened to it for the first time, I would kind of feel like I’m going crazy or something.”
Having moved from relative obscurity to multi-platinum selling artists in less than two years, it’s no wonder MGMT feels a bit confused. But disjointed as Congratulations may sound at times, Berman notes that it’s one of those albums that grows on you a little more with every listen. In many ways, it’s the anti-Oracular Spectacular. It’s also the band’s first bona fide recorded effort as a five-piece.
“The first couple years of touring, it was basically us backing guys trying as hard as we could to reproduce the electronic and layered sounds from the first album, and you could never really document the way it sounded exactly,” recalled Berman. “This time, it’s much easier because we were all recording with real, live arrangements.”
Recorded over the span of about a year in studios spanning from Upstate New York to Malibu, California, Congratulations is still very much the work of VanWyngarden and Goldwasser. The duo’s wry humor and ironic sensibilities run throughout the record, culminating in the eerily laughable title track, which ends the album with lines like, “It’s hardly a sink or swim / When all is well if the ticket sells.”
“Andrew and Ben were still the main songwriters,” explained Berman. “They wrote the arrangements before James [Richardson], Matt [Asti], or I came into the studio. They had chords worked out—basically skeleton-ized versions of the songs—and then all five us had a fine time having a free-for-all with them. It was kind of like decorating the Christmas tree. Whoever had an idea would just lay it down and see if it worked, then we’d peel the layers off to get rid of the rubbish.”
While many folks have chalked Congratulations up as a kiss-off to MGMT’s more casual listeners, both VanWyngarden and Goldwasser vehemently deny such claims, further stating that the new disk is actually a much more cohesive, true look into what MGMT is all about. What that means for fans hoping for a “Kids Pt. 2”—or the big wigs at the band’s Columbia Records home—remains to be determined.
“It seems to me that they were really hands-off through the entire process,” said Berman of the label. “Right up until the end when the record was pretty much done, at which point they would kind of ask what the ‘focus tracks’ might be, which I guess is there word for ‘single.’ That was when Andrew told them that there was not going to be a single, at least not like there were on the last one.”
Single or no (the band has already selected the 12-minute “Siberian Breaks” as one stand-alone), Congratulations somehow manages to work. In between all the strange winks to ’60s psych rock, church dirges, and Matthew Barney’s inherent creepiness, MGMT comes out sounding like a band with a unique vision and a talent for execution. And that just might be the highest compliment afforded a Billboard chart topper so far this year.
MGMT play the Avila Beach Golf Resort (6464 Ana Bay Dr., Avila) this Friday, May 28, at 6 p.m. Call or visit vallitix.com for info.