MUSIC | On the heels of their fourth album, watch "You Life is a Lie"
"How do we keep our authenticity as we make these big deals, as we get a hit single?"
It seemed that once upon a time MGMT owned the brand of indie-pop. When the genre was really taking off into the mainstream in the late aughts, their psychedelic electronics took the culture's ear by storm. They were youthful, introspective, and accessible. At some point, they got sick of their own brand and tried to break free, and landed themselves in relative obscurity, whether that was their ultimate goal or not.
They've been teasing new material for over a year now and with a festival run this summer, it seems like a new album is coming soon. Back in 2013, I questioned whether they were going to go further down the path of strangeness and experimentation or take it back to their roots, gunning for a more crowd-pleasing sound? They would up going way past the Congratulations side of strange with their self-titled third album MGMT. Even more than their sophomore album, MGMT seemed to estrange some fans and wasn't doing much to bring in new ones. So now I'm asking myself a similar question, what direction will they be going in for album number four. A return to their early sound or another leap into the unknown?
What happened to MGMT is really not different than what happens to a lot of small bands that hit it big right out of the gates. They, very understandably, got sick of what got them famous. They gained a small amount of popularity as "The Management" and once they transitioned to MGMT and released their EP Time to Pretend, they were mustering up support online and had some notoriety for their crowd-capturing performances. Their early sound was gruff electronic alt-dance rock, it even had a punk feel to it. They had their deep moments and their fun moments. They were an appealing sound as rock changed its forms, looking for a new movement to grab onto in those years.
So Oracular Spectacular comes out in 2007 and they are bonafide indie-rock stars. "Kids" is everywhere, and "Time to Pretend" and "Electric Feel" are lighting it up as well. Critically the album fared well, garnering a generally positive response, and chartered well to boot, eventually going Gold. For the next few years, they seemed to stay relevant while the indie-rock scene was really booming, with acts like Arcade Fire and Modest Mouse making waves commercially.
By 2010, MGMT seemed ready to repeat themselves. Early that year, Kid Cudi dropped one of the highlights of his career, the anthemic "Pursuit of Happiness", which featured MGMT along with the electronic-rock duo Ratatat. It seemed like the extra buzz generated from that single just months before Congratulations, their sophomore effort, would come out would poise the trippy indie-kids for success. And with the album debuting at Number 2 on the Billboard 200, it seems their momentum was holding true.
That momentum would slowly fade as the ambitious departure in sound and style that Congratulations was made it a hard sell to new fans and some old. While Oracular came into the sonic zeitgeist of 2007 and took off, Congratulations was an experimental and personal record for the duo. They opted out of some of their more electronic tendencies, just as bands like Foster the People were proving that style to still be in demand, in order to pursue a more full-band production. It became evident that they, like many acts before them, had grown weary of the sound they had become popular on. It was even evidenced in live performances, like the recording Qu'est-Ce Que C'est La Vie, Chaton? (Live At The Bataclan), where they would play parts of the set with only acoustic instruments, which they were sure to announce.
It's a legitimate struggle, mostly for acts that start small, without necessarily a strong aim to go big, that happen to get boosted into the mainstream fairly quickly. They grapple with concerns over entering into the big scary industry. "How do we keep our authenticity as we make these big deals, as we get a hit single?". They were certainly not the first band to battle with that transition. MGMT's response was essentially to make the record they wanted to make and move away from the growing indie-pop sound. In 2011, Frank Ocean's "Nature Feels" on Nostalgia Ultra, which sampled MGMT's "Electric Feel", would continue to prove the enduring nature of the band's early sound.
One thing I never doubted was their more dedicated fans. MGMT has seemed to maintain a following with a strong attachment to them, whether it be due to nostalgia or respect for their constant experimentation and disregard for convention. When I saw them at Firefly in 2013, they garnered a large crowd bubbling with excitement. People sang along and were generally entranced, for one reason or another. Although, there were definitely a few that were perturbed by MGMT's classic refusal to play "Kids".
It's hard to say what would've happened if they had stayed the course. It's very likely that had they stuck with the sound that made them famous, people would have gotten sick of it quickly. On the other hand, maybe they did push too hard and far away. Their self-titled MGMT might not have totally alienated dedicated fans but it certainly didn't attract too many new ones. While they were cautiously praised by some critics for their experimental efforts, in general critical and commercial performance was pretty weak… but I mean, do they even care about all of that?
In an interview given pretty early on in 2013, they answered my question of what direction they would be going in, and that answer was they were going weirder. "We're not trying to make music that everyone understands the first time they hear it," Ben Goldwasser told Rolling Stone. So fair enough, that's their M.O. Nonetheless, I'm wondering the same thing I did in 2013 about this next album, which they recently announced would be titled Little Dark Age.
The group has been teasing at new content for over a year and a half now, mostly through their Twitter. Like has happened in the past, the project's expected release has been continuously pushed further and further back. With a string of festival appearances this summer, it seems like the same timeline as their last album, so it seems right to expect it sometime in early fall. If I'm correct in seeing a similar timeline, we should probably be expecting a single sometime soon.
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As far as content goes, the most we've gotten at this point that they've personally released is a cryptic video appearing on their website. It's ambient. It's got a meandering dream-scape vibe that's only further reinforced by the video accompaniment. If this is what we can expect sound-wise for the new album, then yes, I think the answer is that they will again go down a strange new path. The operative there, though, is new given that while it still doesn't sound like they're trying to hit the same notes they did in their early work, the strangeness of this new sound isn't defined by the compressed, distorted anarchy of their last album.
So we'll have to wait and see. Hopefully they will be releasing more content soon and we'll get a better listen as to what we're in for. Given that Indie Rock has seemed to have fallen off the mainstream radar in the last few years, it's always interesting to see what the once-juggernauts are up to.
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