MGMT’s career-making hit “Time to Pretend” pulled off an awfully cute trick. In it, the Connecticut-sired, Brooklyn zip-coded duo of Ben Goldwasser and Andrew VanWyngarden reverse-jinxed themselves into pop success, presenting their hedonistic rock-star daydreams as silly and unreasonable, in the midst of a streamlined electro jam so catchy that it was more or less assured to take off. There were other big moments on the pair’s 2008 major-label debut, Oracular Spectacular, taller and sleeker than the strumming, wonky Anglophilia they outpaced, but that one felt truly effortless. A perceived lack of effort, and youth-begetting profile description as “recent-[insert East Coast university]-graduates,” really get the indefatigable hater community psyched for backlash season. (As descriptors go, that combination of youth and ease is a little too close to a textbook definition of “talent,” perhaps?) Anyhow, the MGMT boys, flush with material gain, new admirers all the way up the icon pyramid to “Beatles,” and the freedom to do nearly anything, chose not to retrace that runaway path to victory.
“There definitely isn’t a ‘Time to Pretend’ or a ‘Kids’ on the album. We’ve been talking about ways to make sure people hear the album as an album in order and not just figure out what are the best three tracks, download those and not listen to the rest of it,” Goldwasser told NME earlier this year; an easy thing to say when you’ve failed to write an obvious breakout single or three. But he’s right. Congratulations, MGMT’s second full-length, is absent the ingratiating energy of the aforementioned songs, as well as the Prince-via-Beck soul pastiche of others like “Electric Feel.” What’s left is that strumming, wonky Anglophilia that no one listened to the first time, apparently. As it turns out, they are actually pretty good at that stuff.
In comparison to the shark-like hits on Oracular Spectacular, Congratulations’ lead single, “Flash Delirium,” is a shaggy bastard. It resembles listless Britpop for a bit, before flashes of insane swagger start intruding, culminating in a huge, blown-out, glam-rock call and response. The band’s bank of pop moves is doled out sporadically, a stingy slot machine to the perpetual hook ATMs of yore. But by the time its thrash-punk coda flames out, the digressions are earned. Elsewhere, more linear, slow-burn psych ballads, like “Someone’s Missing” or the hazy lighter-lifter “I Found a Whistle,” seem structurally backloaded to avoid immediacy until rescued by time-released swoons.
Talking to Black Book, Goldwasser expressed alienation from the local underground. “If the fabled Brooklyn music scene does exist, we’re definitely not part of it. Most of those bands are never going to be discovered by anyone because they’re too insular and weird. Although there are very cool things happening in those makeshift clubs in Bushwick, they have nothing to do with us.” A relatively short stint in obscurity might explain stunted camaraderie, but the album’s prevailing sounds reveal songwriters too busy living through old UK vinyl to soak up contemporary influence. The tracklist overtly namechecks two record nerd saints—troubled indie-pop progenitor Dan Treacy from The Television Personalities, and cerebral deity Brian Eno. The mirrored homage might itself be a nod to David Bowie, who took time on Hunky Dory to tip-cap towards Dylan and Warhol. Neither song directly apes its namesake’s style. “Brian Eno” is more of a knotty, ADD Supergrass song, and lyrically acknowledges an unbreachable gap from here to Eno. “A Song for Dan Treacy” attempts one of those nifty Kinks songs following some poor striver careening about the mid-level of the British social strata. Instead of rich character study, or even Treacy’s smart-ass twee reportage, there’s a barreling looseness that recalls the momentary promise of a different dead-ender, the Libertines’ Pete Doherty. Davies’ Kinks are more successfully worshipped (at length) during the 12-minute flow of “Siberian Breaks.” It sounds like an oddly motivated DJ cross-fading between album cut melodies, but avoiding any radio favorites or even fleeting off-brand hooks. The song is less jarring than multi-song suites by Of Montreal or the Fiery Furnaces, but also less revelatory. Pinpointing vague familiarity in changing melodies demands more attention than the lyrics, but the embedded mantra, “I want to die before I get sold,” amuses, if only because that demise would require a time machine back to 2004.
Congratulations’ tuneful title track ends the record with another note of tongue-in-cheek prognostication. This time, MGMT imagine themselves holed up in an L.A. mansion, giving lip service to “half-assed guilt,” and just marinating in filtered praise from phony well-wishers. Whether album-based, hero-soaked eccentricity without obvious blog and car-commercial bait will move enough units to get them there is a real question for a major label act. It is an odd and overwhelmingly melodic little record, though, with admirable aims usually achieved. And man, if they pulled that trick off too, it’d really piss off all the right people.