In many ways, MGMT’s debut “Oracular Spectacular” kicked off a musical movement. Some might even grant this honor (or blame, depending on your taste) to the single ten note riff that had “Kids” stuck in everyone’s heads for all of 2008. Whatever the source, it’s impossible to ignore the sea of imitators that followed — Foster the People, Empire of the Sun and Passion Pit, to name a few. It’s hard to pick MGMT out of this crowd today, but, sure enough, it all traces back to “Oracular Spectacular” and its youthful, somewhat bleak and undeniably catchy riffs. Of course, Andrew VanWyngarden and Ben Goldwasser weren’t the first to come up with a radio-friendly riff, but they were perhaps the first product of the early 2000s indie rock movement to shy away from rock elements in favor of concise catchiness and the sweet nostalgia of teenage awkwardness.
The music video that best sums up early MGMT’s vibe is not even theirs: it’s the trailer for last year’s “Spiderman: Homecoming,” which features “Time to Pretend.” Watch and instantly find yourself transported back to 2008. MGMT was singing to all the Peter Parkers of the world, and with over half a billion Spotify streams between “Oracular Spectacular”’s three hits, we listened.
Then, MGMT made the most surprising decision of their young career: they stopped writing catchy riffs. By all metrics the duo was destined to release radio hits, “make some music, make some money, find some models for wives” for eternity and live happily ever after. Instead they spent two albums belaboring the modern psychedelia of Tame Impala and The Flaming Lips without bringing anything new to the table. As M83 and Empire of the Sun continued to capitalize on the “Oracular” trend, MGMT faded into obscurity. News of their fourth album was barely news, even after a four year hiatus, but make no mistake: “Little Dark Age” is their most noteworthy effort in a decade.
Right off the bat, the title track and lead single is MGMT’s best song since their debut. Arcade Fire has spent the second half of their career trying to evoke paranoia through the dreary synth style of the ’80s. They sort of hit it on the “Reflektor” track “Porno,” and then tried again 13 times on last year’s “Everything Now,” failing every time. MGMT nails it on their first try with “Little Dark Age.” The track opens with simple synths reminiscent of Yaz and grows into an anxious groove à la Depeche Mode. The electronics are artful, the chanted lyrics “I grieve in stereo, the stereo sounds strange” so gloriously ’80s. It’s a triumph for a group that has spent the past 10 years struggling to achieve what they set out to make.
Speaking of ’80s glory, there’s plenty of it throughout “Little Dark Age.” The classic workout video voice in “She Works Out Too Much” takes a clever shot at Tinder, and “When You Die” is a dark twist of the Talking Heads. “Me and Michael” could easily be subbed in for “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” as Bender walks home from detention, fist triumphant in the air, and “One Thing Left to Try” recalls New Order’s most dance-worthy tunes. Unfortunately, the songs in between are no more than pseudo-psychedelic filler, but at least half the album is straight out of “Weird Science” in the best way possible.
Yet, despite all this, VanWyngarden and Goldwasser did not set out to make an ’80s cover album. Rather, their goal was to twist and mangle the elements of new wave synth rock to capture the anxiety of living in the 2010s. It’s an extremely ambitious and admirable goal, especially for a group that has barely found its identity, and besides the title track and elements of a few others, “Little Dark Age” falls short of its objective. Account for the filler and the fact that “Me and Michael” might as well be a cover, and you’re left with about four songs that make a respectable effort to find modern anxiety in the trappings of ’80s new wave. These four songs, however, present incredible opportunities for MGMT as their career matures. “Little Dark Age” is somewhat of a revival, and if VanWyngarden and Goldwasser attack their next effort with similar ambition, they’ve certainly laid the groundwork for something special.