MGMT is back in form with sleek, lean ‘Little Dark Age’

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Grade: 4.0/5.0

MGMT came into Little Dark Age feeling behind the times.

The moment its title track dropped, accompanied by a music video, was one of bated breaths for fans. Would MGMT be back? Or would the group provide another album laden with overwrought esotericism and culminating in listener disinterest?

“Little Dark Age” as a track embodies anything but these potential disappointments. A lean, mean pop song with hollowed-out, eerie vocal acoustics to perfectly match the gothic horror mansion of its video’s setting, “Little Dark Age” also brought back the element that has been so desperately needed by the duo’s recent music — a catchy hook.

That’s not to say the single is devoid of the band’s characteristic oddness. As the layering of synths builds over the course of the song, brief flourishes that could have been present on “Electric Feel” dance around the periphery. These splashes never eat into the pop-ascendant center, but they distinguish the song’s build from the thoroughfare pop of something by, say, CHVRCHES.

“When You Die,” which follows immediately after on Little Dark Age, doubles down on that specific genre of pop in which something’s just slightly amiss. Acoustically aesthetic progressions mix into harsh vocalizations — “Don’t call me nice!” Andrew VanWyngarden commands, “Go fuck yourself!” — as vaguely-Eastern guitar plucking blends into Western chord progressions. One note of that progression is intentionally always off, discordant. Coupled with the song’s chorus of menacing laughs, the track reminds us that the world we live in today is a dark one. As VanWyngarden posits in the opening track: “Welcome to the shitshow.”

In fact, “She Works Out Too Much” is the best encapsulation of the band’s embrace of indie nouveau. It opens with a singsong voice preparing us to “have some fun” while working out, floating over pulsing video game-esque synths that reminisce the bleeding edge of the dreamwave EDM of Giraffage. The chorus too — with its electronically modulated voices flowing in and out — completes the picture of a band at home pulling the best of today’s synth form into a more analog, DJ-less setting, grounding it in echoes of live instrumentation rather than the massive drops of the EDM genre.

Not to be accused of abject modernity, the band uses “TSLAMP” to draw the album back into the past, implementing retro tinges of disco, not unlike those that benefitted Daft Punk on Random Access Memories. Whether it’s through a bassline or keyboard progression, Little Dark Age refuses to abandon the melodic thread that incessantly pulls listeners from second to second. In short, it accomplishes the purpose of pop while remaining interesting.

Little Dark Age even stays captivating through an instrumental track, which demonstrates the amount of joy teeming in the playful instrumentation. Unlike the more blasé synths on Franz Ferdinand’s Always Ascending, MGMT, somewhat uncharacteristically, reins it into something focused. Perhaps that had something to do with the album coming together remotely, as VanWyngarden and Ben Goldwasser sent ideas and snippets back and forth over the internet. Perhaps with that distance, ideas were forced to be clarified and then challenged, isolated and then brought together in harmony.

Also welcome is VanWyngarden’s decision to drop into a lower register on a handful of tracks, such as on the Pink Floyd-esque “When You’re Small” and the slow ballad of “James.”

Little Dark Age is 10 tracks, tying in nicely with its aesthetic of present brevity. It closes with “Hand It Over,” an appropriately retrospective track. But in wrapping up the album, there’s a sense of missed opportunity, though it’s paired with a welcome sense of hope. While the album has plenty of enjoyable tracks, presenting a compelling composite, the most fun is had at its front end with the reckless abandon and earworm hooks of “She Works Out Too Much,” “Little Dark Age” and “When You Die.”

That said, while the album may internally decline in fun, as a whole it presents a vector toward an exciting direction for the band. Most importantly, it establishes that MGMT still possesses the capacity for reinvention. Little Dark Age is proof that, should MGMT choose to, it has it in its power to stay relevant.

Contact Imad Pasha at [email protected]. Tweet him at @prappleizer.