MGMT - Congratulations - Albums - Reviews - Soundblab

MGMT - Congratulations

by Pete Sykes Rating:8 Release Date:2010-04-12

According to the band themselves, MGMT's new album Congratulations is "a collection of nine individual musical tours de force sequenced to flow with sonic and thematic coherence." Right - you mean like an album? Ben Goldwasser and Andrew VanWyngarden have talked the record up incessantly since announcing its existence in January, taking pains to emphasise just how different it is from their debut, Oracular Spectacular. It's perhaps this fact that has created something of a backlash, as two-song fans expecting to find 'Kids' or 'Electric Feel' mk2 have been bewildered by the lack of singles and the purposely offbeat mini-epics they've encountered. Oracular Spectacular was a highly enjoyable record, stuffed with hooks and big choruses, but in the end it was little more than a collection of well-executed pastiches, and one ingenious song in 'Time to Pretend'. Congratulations is altogether more complex, more ambitious, and, for the most part, more satisfying; the sound, perhaps, of a band who've resisted pressures from fans and label bosses to retread old ground and instead decided, fuck it, we'll make the record that we want to make.

The first track, 'It's Working', kicks proceedings off at a terrific pace, with a portentous riff (stolen, incidentally, from REM's 'Maps and Legends'), glorious harmonies and a thumping, insistent drumbeat. Even better is 'Song For Dan Treacy', named for the singer of British post-punk band Television Personalities, a four minute romp of jangly guitars and cartoonish organ refrains which builds up to a magnificent crescendo. These two tracks are perhaps the catchiest and most immediate on the record, and on the surface ought to find favour with those fans of 'Kids' and 'Electric Feel', but there's a key difference - whereas those two hits were extremely simple and easy to digest, 'It's Working' and 'Dan Treacy' find the boys gleefully cramming idea after idea into each track. Shifting time signatures, weird song structures, colourful riffs that last a few seconds before giving way to another (as opposed to repeating incessantly, like the bass in 'Electric Feel'): these tunes are more complex but, crucially, still boast infectious melodies and hooks.

After this opening salvo, things take a turn for the leftfield, but there are still terrific moments. First single 'Flash Delerium' starts off restrained before, via a splendid 60s style pop tune, going absolutely mental and then screeching abruptly to a halt. 'Brian Eno' is a brilliant, exhilerating slice of bubblegum pop which envisions the legendary producer and ambient pioneer as a kind of supernatural guru, at whose feet MGMT worship. 'Siberian Breaks', meanwhile, is a 12-minute psychedelic epic awkwardly bestriding the middle of the record, whose first half sounds remarkably like seminal 60s band Love before it goes all electro-ambient on us and dissolves into twinkling, shimmering synths. It's a slightly exhausting listen, and it feels oddly placed with almost half the album still to go, but there aren't many pop bands who could and would produce such an ambitious and wonderfully realised piece of music. There is filler here too - acoustic ballad 'I Found a Whistle' feels insignificant, and the sarcastic title track provides a merely adequate end to the record - but the progression the band have made from Oracular Spectacular is palpable.

This is apparent not only in the music, but also in the change in lyrical tone. Whereas Oracular Spectacular was all about wide-eyed innocence and, on 'Time To Pretend', fascination with the mythic rock-star sex-and-drugs lifestyle, Congratulations sees Goldwasser and VanWyngarden growing up, and that dream turning sour. The title track ("It's hardly a sink or swim/When all is well if the ticket sells") envisions a future as that other cliche, the washed-up, middle-aged rocker more concerned with counting his money than keeping it real. At the same time, the copious name-checks (Eno and Treacy, Lady Gaga on the sinister instrumental 'Lady Dada's Nightmare', the lyric "You'll never be as good as The Rolling Stones" on 'Flash Delerium') hint that they're still obsessed with pop mythology and, by extension, their own story. By these impeccably cool references, and by the way they've talked in interviews about the record, refuting the pop stardom that another Oracular Spectacular could have brought them, they are consciously writing the next chapter in their history - as a fearless, experimental band not afraid to confound expectation by producing difficult, daring, iconoclastic music. If this is their aim, then Congratulations realises it with aplomb. This single-minded focus on developing as musicians - and as rock-stars with a story arc - makes MGMT one of the more interesting bands around today, and I for one await their epic, zillion-selling third album, their unlistenably experimental and critically panned fourth, and the return to pop basics on their fifth, before 'creative differences' lead to a hiatus and the inevitable solo projects (followed, in 2025, by a reformation and greatest hits tour). Let's hope that each stage in their career produces music as rich, enjoyable and as alive with glee and mischief as that on Congratulations.

Pete Sykes

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