Imagine you release an album and it’s wildly successful, at least in terms of the size of your band. Your songs are being played everywhere: on TV, in movies, at clubs, rappers like Jim Jones are jumping on remixes of them (there is even talk that you’ll be featured on Jay-Z’s highly anticipated Blueprint 3); they are taking up space on countless homemade mixtapes. But funnily enough, it’s always the same two or three songs the licensers are asking for or the mixtape makers are downloading. While preparing to record your second album you have a choice it seems, to give the people what they want or try to prove you are “more” than those hits and veer so wildly away from what made you a success that it almost seems like antagonistic act. MGMT, the band in question, have chosen to do the latter on their sophomore record, Congratulations. The Brooklyn-based duo which had previously made a few of the hookiest songs of the decade ("Electric Feel," "Kids") decided that what they really wanted to do was veer away from their Gold-selling debut, Oracular Spectacular. MGMT have determined, like so many young groups, that being a good Pop-Rock band is unworthy of their time. They’ve decided to stretch and show their range. However on Congratulations, instead of something new but equally compelling as what came before, we get an experiment record bursting with half-formed ideas and psychedelic signifiers.
Opener “It’s Working” is a decent microcosm of Congratulations as a whole. It features gauzy productions, whimsical harpsichord, and a fatal lack of memorable musical passages. It also introduces, with lines like “How will I know if it’s working right,” this album’s lyrical trend of confusion, disillusionment and cynicism. Some of the album’s choice lyrics being “real emotion's such a drag,” “You’ll never be as good as the Rolling Stones,” and “I hope I die before I get sold.” With this level of writing, it’s hard not to see the album as a pointed “so what” directed at the band’s popularity, achieved on the back of catchy Pop singles. Track two is “Song for Dan Treacy,” which attempts, unsuccessfully, to create the same shambolic immediacy that Television Personalities front man of the song’s title seemingly did so effortlessly. This is the first of two songs that name check well respected esoteric musicians. Much like David Bowie’s "Hunky Dory" tributes to Bob Dylan and Andy Warhol, these feel like attempts to position MGMT in the lineage of these two men. But name-checks are never enough; these songs fail to show that the duo shares any of the qualities that made those two musicians so revered. The second of the two is “Brian Eno,” by far the most awkward and silly track on the album. Like “Dan Treacy,” it's sung in a severely-affected British accent which goes to great lengths to cram Eno minutia into the lyrics. The song stumbles to a close in a mass of sound effects, another attempt to alert the listener that this is weird, Psychedelic music.
Another trippy touchstone the group makes sure not to miss is the sitar which they feature on “Someone's Missing” one of the outstanding Congratulations offerings. The memorable bit is the repeated mantra of the outro, "It feels like someone's missing.” Another song that saves its interesting ideas for the fade-out is “I Found a Whistle”, an acoustic dirge adorned with wobbly synths. That two of the most engaging passages on the album are outros seems willfully withholding.
The record closes with a duo of songs that illustrate MGMT’s strengths and weaknesses. First there is the pretentious “Lady Dada’s Nightmare,” an atmospheric piece that fails to create any kind of atmosphere. It’s clearly going for dark and spooky but it fails because, like when the group attempts “far-out” music, they simply through together a few old chestnuts and call it a day. Here, it’s haunted house organ, minor piano chords, and screaming, wordless vocals. Next, and finally, there is the album’s titular song. It’s easily Congratulations' strongest and its simplest, made up of laid back Psych-Folk acoustic guitars, steel drums and a strong melody. It reminds the listener that these guys can create enjoyable, charming music. One thing that must be said for all the songs is that they “sound” good, the band and Space-Rock titan Pete Kember make sure the whole album is pleasing, but hardly daring or enduring.
The album’s most telling lyric is “Wide open arms can feel so cold.” MGMT achieved commercial and critical success in Oracular Spectacular, so they lashed out and instead of creating more hummable Pop songs they created a swirling, psychedelic mess. And it's not that making psychedelia in 2010 isn't a worthwhile pursuit. It's that if it's going to be done it has to be more than a retread of the elements that defined that music 40 years ago. Cliché’s, presented as is with no attempt at exploration or deconstruction, will never be revelatory or mind expanding, will never display your “artistic depth” to the popular masses. MGMT have proven this by making one of the biggest clichés of all, the "difficult second album."