Vinyl Matters: MGMT’s bombastic self-titled psych-freak-fest delivers master moments in mixed bag

October 9, 2013

MGMT vinyl clouds. Photo by Hans Morgenstern

MGMT continue to drift down the rabbit hole with the brilliant, if at times mixed bag, that is its new self-titled album. If you can get past some rather heavy-handed early efforts in weirdness that open the album, you will find some amazing rewards in this further experimental album by Benjamin Goldwasser and Andrew VanWyngarden. The center of the duo’s fourth full-length album stands as the band’s most triumphant moment in its career. Songs like “Introspection,” “Astro-Mancy” and “I Love You Too, Death” might sound like filler to some but actually harbor some of MGMT’s most inspired moments of creativity ever.

Though rather sweet, get past the child’s voice that kicks off the album (“Alien Days”) and transitions into VanWyngarden’s hazy voice and some rather banal guitar strumming with some zippy, perky synthesized space-rock decora. You can even skip the second low-key, sleepy-voiced number, “Cool Song No. 2,” peppered with the sounds of the jungle, like the howls of monkeys. It’s easier to like “Mystery Disease,” with its dense layers of throbbing electronics, but despite some rather original thoroughly deconstructed samples that includes covers of “You Are My Lucky Star” and “Don’t Let The Stars Get In Your Eyes” by Werner Müller and His Orchestra, the track never seems to go anywhere after four minutes. However, it’s when you arrive to track four where things really become interesting.

The cover of Faine Jade’s “Introspection” truly sets the album in motion toward post-psych-rock inventiveness. The phasing left-right-left-right-left of VanWyngarden singing the opening lines both brings a clichéd added dimension to the mix and an affectionate nod to the loopy stereophonic indulgence of the genre. MGMT vinyl detail. Photo by Hans MorgensternAs they did when they covered bands like Pink Floyd (“Lucifer Sam”) and Cleaners From Venus (“Only a Shadow”), MGMT stay true to the original tune but pump it up with a witty, almost cartoonish sense of psychedelic rock on steroids. But the track is also filled with shimmering bits of décor like phasing reverb and, God Bless them, a flute solo, not to mention Goldwasser’s complimentary bits of synthesized space rock sprinkles, as it builds to a soaring finale of all the bits layering up together to come to a sudden ecstatic cut.

The percussive “WHACK” of “Your Life Is a Lie” suddenly kicks in with hardly a chance for a breath. It’s a ruthless track on many levels. The lyrics offer an exploration of brutal honesty while the music feels like a non-stop assault. “Here’s the deal/Open your eyes/Your life is a lie/Don’t say a word/I’ll tell you why/You’re living a lie/Your life is a lie,” VanWyngarden sings with a deadpan delivery to conclude over and over that you are “on your own.” MGMT prove they still have a sense of looking at a deeper layer of existence, not too different from the sensibility that so richly informed the nostalgic moment of “Time To Pretend” (“I’ll miss the playgrounds and the animals and digging up worms … Yeah I’ll miss the boredom and the freedom and the time spent alone,” he sang juxtaposing those lyrics with “I’ll move to Paris, shoot some heroin and fuck with the stars/You man the island and the cocaine and the elegant cars”). But with “Your Life Is a Lie” something purer lies in the lyrics’ directness that skip subversion and get right to the point that speaks to today’s tendency for everyone to indulge in personas propagated by generation Y’s “We’re all so original together,” not to mention the social media filters provided by cyberspace and the whizz-bang edits of “reality television” that’s ironically and heavy-handedly contrived.

The song structure, with a metallic cowbell smack for punctuation, bobs on a perpetual, dense, unrelenting percussive racket with no real hook. With its sharp clacks of metal, rumbling bass and a range of instrumentation joining in to clang along to illuminate a humming buzz, the first single off the album was a slap in the face against all that is catchy about early MGMT. The video offers witty literal visuals, which is appropriate considering the words are far from subversive:

Side B, opens with a brilliant, ghostly shimmer that could have been lifted from a Broadcast record. A hypnotic electro pulse overtakes it, soaring off to space-rock heights until a burbling, creaking sound fades in to underlie the song’s pulsating electronics. With these three musical evolutions, “A Good Sadness” settles into a groove for VanWyngarden’s voice to appear. It’s mixed low, weaving through the din of electronics, breathy and layered and almost as inhuman and spectral as the multi-tracks. He becomes difficult to understand, but a few words like “memories” and “to feel it’s all right” appear among the sibilant vocals before the din swells and peters away in the distance on echoing beeps. It’s another impressionistic, layered— if more electronic— triumph that maybe the band’s most celestial moment.

“Astro-Mancy” kicks off sounding like “Abdulmajid,” an obscure David Bowie-Brian Eno collaboration from that duo’s time together in Berlin. You half-expect this busy track with its jungle-like rhythms and sporadic, active electro-whistles and phases to be an instrumental. Once again, VanWyngarden’s voice returns, with even more dreamier treatments.MGMT Side B. Photo by Hans Morgenstern It may as well be an instrumental, as he seems just as hard to understand as the previous track. But a glance in the lyric sheet reveals a surrealistic theme more interested in creating atmosphere than offering a concrete message. With coos and oos exhaling below his echoing vocals, VanWyngarden seems to sigh his lyrics: “My green silken river and two lights/I could almost touch the free walls.” It sounds like the aural equivalent of an LSD trip.

Just when you think the album could not go stranger, here comes the audio-hallucinatory build-up of melodies and synch shifts in “I Love You Too, Death.” Buzzy and pulsing electronics meld with flutes, ticking brushes and reverberated single dings on a tiny bell. Again VanWyngarden’s voice appears spectral and drenched in echo but much clearer, as he half whispers lines alluding to the grim reaper (“Who is much more than a friend/But never by my side?/All beginnings are an end”). As with many songs on this album, the lyrics grow more surreal as the song layers up with instrumentation (“Autumn hurts far less than sticks, knowing winter’s five feet tall”). Very gradually more melodies appear, first harmonium sighs then a strumming guitar. Still the track’s opening melody of flute and bell carries on, and the song ever so subtly morphs into something completely different while still maintaining a subtle familiarity. It’s the musical equivalent of deja-vu, and it’s brilliantly crafted.

It may be MGMT had little where else to go at this point, as the next track returns to the self-conscious zaniness that opened the album. “Plenty of Girls in the Sea” breaks up the strangeness like “Excuse Me” interrupted Peter Gabriel’s weirdo/dramatic first album. The cabaret-like tune feels out of place and too sly for its own sake. It’ll be new to some kids and may even sound weird for the sake of being weird, but it’s the obvious kind of bizarreness, despite the sometimes ironic lyrical play (“There’s plenty of girls in the sea/And plenty of those are not women”).

MGMT. Image Courtesy Columbia Records.

But then comes the capper, “An Orphan of Fortune,” which earns it’s spot as a closing number. It feels rather unfinished but still mysterious. It opens with a misty, creepy quality until shifting to a cascade of percussion and layers of creaking, warped electronics. At first listen, this could be a lost Bauhaus song. When the song explodes in an elastic, blurring “melody,” VanWyngarden’s voice emerges, again immersed in the mix to impressionistic quality. A few words jump out like “morning” and “erode” before the song once again shifts, breaking it down for a melodica solo. Then the wash of percussion returns with the vocals and more instruments piling in and freaking out, as VanWyngarden repeats “into Twilight” until everything halts for a shimmering phasing fade out, which gives way to a rather grotesque, roaring organ solo that kind of just peters out, almost exhausted in an anti-climactic fade out.

And so the short album ends on a rather low-key note that may sound like a shrug, if this band were not so sly. This is music for fans of the early Brian Eno and Pink Floyd. MGMT wrote a couple of great pop tunes early in its career that expanded their audience far wider than its heart for weirdness could handle. It’s great that “Kids” and “Electric Feel” where both witty and catchy, but so much of their stellar work is moody, atmospheric, dynamic and ultimately transporting. With this self-titled album, the duo has returned to work with Dave Fridmann, who made a name for himself by shaping the sound of the Flaming Lips and first worked with MGMT on its breakthrough 2008 album Oracular Spectacular, which featured those aforementioned singles. As much as the band showed growth working with Sonic Boom on its last album (My review: MGMT grow with Congratulations), their ease in working with Fridmann shines through on this new album. The genius hinted at in Oracular, like the shifting atmospheric “Future Reflections,“ reaches new organic heights in many songs of this new album.

Finally, the band has had visuals made for each track in an “optimizer” mode found on the CD or as a download in the vinyl version. As revealed by the trailer below, the “optimized” album features animated psychedelically-colored digital images from alien creatures to skyscapes that accompany the music on the album.

Music history is filled with artists who have tried to visualize music, from Walt Disney to Len Lye. Though there has been science that shows some correlation with color and music, this music critic prefers the evocative quality of music in relation to one’s own imagination. For instance, few probably feel the sensation of peering into a darkened corner of a desolated, run down, dusty mansion when they hear the opening drones and whistles of “A Good Sadness.”

MGMT vinyl. Photo by Hans Morgenstern

The “optimizer” trailer above implies the enhanced experience of watching visuals accompanied by the music. However, as ever, the vinyl is the true treat, offering pure aural bliss with nothing but the imagination to accompany the listening experience (again, note the research). Music is a blur of impressions, offering a feeling more than anything visual. There’s a taste of nostalgia and cracks into the subconscious dreamland that defy words. The creativity of this album works best as it was initially intended by the musicians: as music. The fact that the LP arrives on 180 gram vinyl, “pressed in Europe” (Columbia Records does have access to some of the best plants there), shines through on this record of rather intricate audio gymnastics. Because it’s so active and dynamic with so many layers of melody, contrast and din, it is best experienced on the separation and space provided by vinyl.

Hans Morgenstern

Columbia provided a promotional copy of the vinyl version of this album for the purposes of this review.

(Copyright 2013 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

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