No matter what you think of MGMT, you’ve got to give them props for refusing to become stale. The band has evolved from their original bohemian rocker aesthetic, refusing to be defined solely by Oracular Spectacular, the hit album that boosted them into the spotlight over a decade ago. That being said, their newest album, Little Dark Age, tells me that they’re still not quite sure who they want to be.
Their first two singles, “Little Dark Age” and “When You Die,” which were both accompanied by music videos, made many think that they had begun to find an image. The “Little Dark Age” video shows a transition to a new, goth-pop territory; while “When You Die” makes it clear that they’re still not done using trippy, out of this world visuals.
In many ways, Little Dark Age does succeed in balancing the fine line between experimentation and clutter, in ways that their 2013 self-titled album failed to achieve.
The return of catchy hooks and seemingly effortless lyrics found in their first two singles, along with many others on the album, give the impression that the band is finally willing to lean into the commercial success of Oracular Spectacular and the upbeat rhythms, synths, and special effects that come along with it, without abandoning their obvious desire to develop more maturity in their sound.
In many tracks, including “One Thing Left to Try,” “Me and Michael” and the title track, “Little Dark Age,” MGMT demonstrates an evolution of sorts as they embrace the darker sounds of ‘80s synth pop, which works for them. After the “Little Dark Age” video was released, many comparisons were drawn between MGMT and The Cure, with a confident Andrew VanWyngarden boasting long, dark hair and eye makeup as he sang the gothic lyrics of the track.
However, “She Works Out Too Much,” and “TSLAMP” find the band back to grasping at straws when it comes to their sound. “She Works Out Too Much” is an overexertion of energy (no pun intended), sounding more like parody than originality. MGMT has succeeded in the past, and even on this album, in making powerful, societal remarks throughout their songs, but “TSLAMP” is too on-the-nose and obvious to be impactful. “TSLAMP”–standing for “Time Spent Looking At My Phone”–speaks of the trivial obsession with the cell phone, honing in on a message that’s far from revolutionary, bringing nothing new to the conversation but a cringeworthy attempt at a call-out.
Overall, Little Dark Age shows some serious growth for MGMT but still falls short at points. Slower tracks like “When You’re Smaller” and “Hand It Over” are reminiscent of Congratulations, (in a very welcome way), while “James,” which was recorded while the entire band and the producer were tripping, exemplifies MGMT’s tendency to try too hard to be unique and far out.
This album is difficult to decipher, albeit an important next step in MGMT’s journey to self-identification. The band is still teetering somewhere in between not caring what people think and caring too much, but their ability to converge organic sounds, steady beats and melodies is ever undeniable.