Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Congratulations by MGMT (2010)

After the last article’s exploration of the “return to form”, this review tackles another peculiarity in the music industry: the “difficult second album”. Especially in recent years, where artists are expected to produce saleable albums and less commercial work is discouraged or even blocked by record companies, an artist’s second album is often make-or-break. The albatross around the artists’ necks is particularly cumbersome if their first album was a hit. It raises expectations, interest and subsequently pressure. A standard solution to making a second album involves largely continuing the vibe of the original; coasting along with the original formula but with higher production values. Often, this is a good time to introduce synthesizers or orchestras to take the band’s sound to the next level. The second album often contains a single that sounds suspiciously like the first album to assure the public that the artist is still in shape. A large problem with second albums is the fact that all of the artist’s life experiences were distilled into the first; the second stereotypically deals with the newfound fame, or some kind of disillusionment following the previous album. Some notable “second albums” are Room on Fire (2003) by the Strokes, which largely follows the blueprint of its successful predecessor and Favourite Worst Nightmare (2007) by the Arctic Monkeys which keeps the atmosphere of the first, but beefs up the sound with more sonic layers.

MGMT spare us the wrestling about whether their second album is a suitable or worthy successor to 2008’s Oracular Spectacular by creating something almost incomparable. Oracular Spectacular was a somewhat patchy affair, but became a big hit in the months following its release through catchy, danceable “indie” singles like “Time to Pretend”, “Kids” and “Electric Feel”. The rest of the album showed a more experimental side, referencing 1970’s soft rock influences (particularly on “Of Moons, Birds & Monsters”), but the complete album is hit and miss. The logical and commercial thing to do at this point is focus on the pop songs, launch a second album with an instantly recognisable catchy lead single and hope to cross over to more mainstream audiences. Instead, the first song released from Congratulations was a psychedelic romp without a clear structure, chorus or even title, accompanied by a bizarre video:

When the album was released shortly after (generously still available for streaming on the band’s website), it became clear that none of the other tracks had much pop sensibility either. Where were the catchy analogue synthesizer hooks, indie drumming and disco beats from Oracular Spectacular?

MGMT has taken a left turn. The opening track (aptly titled “It’s Working”) features a harpsichord, cor anglais, a pounding rhythm section, Queen-style harmonies and an increasingly intense layering of the various elements. Andrew Vanwyngarden’s falsetto takes on more than aping Bee Gees disco hits this time around, as his echo-heavy multi-tracked lead vocals soar over the arrangement. The track recalls Arcade Fire in their more epic moments. What follows is a brief suite of energetic, inventive songs that provide the necessary ups and downs required to lure the listener into the rest of the album. This stretch of songs also includes the aforementioned “single” “Flash Delirium”, not one bit out of place in between its peers.

Track six, “Siberian Breaks” ends the run of short songs, and would presumably be the first track of the second side of the imaginary LP. By now the band’s 1970s influences are taking them through a prog phase, one that “Of Moons, Birds & Monsters” had only hinted at. The various parts of the twelve-minute song lull the listener through various permutations and dreamy sonic landscapes while never getting bogged down in the trappings of the prog rock genre (think of tights, celestial choirs and subdivided “movements”). It is rudely followed by the high energy thrust of tribute song “Brian Eno”, casting him as some kind of electro wizard villain (“we’re always one step behind him/Brian Eno!”). Surprisingly informative (it even mentions Eno’s “Oblique Strategies” cards used in Bowie’s Berlin Trilogy), this is one of the few songs that could be considered single material, in that it has a proper verse/chorus/verse structure. Its exhausting tempo and geeky subject matter disqualify it somewhat, however.

MGMT cannot be commended enough for crafting Congratulations as their difficult second album. They gave their inspiration and influences free reign, resisted the urge to cash in on their pop success and produced what can already be considered one of the highlights of 2010. Congratulations indeed!