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When a band grows up: MGMT’s ‘Congratulations’ at 10

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10 years ago, Andrew VanWyngarden and Ben Goldwasser decided they had enough of the pop pleasures they served in songs like ‘Kids’ and ‘Electric Feel’: instead, they produced an album which indulges their love of psychedelia and classic rock as well as providing the definitive statement of who MGMT are. Needless to say, this project turned off their fair-weathered fans. However, it’s clear by now that Congratulations is one of the most admirable and enjoyable rock LP’s of the last decade.

With this album, MGMT desires patience from the listener, and it’s apparent in their lyrics. The band refrains from delivering the conventional pop formula of verse, chorus, verse, chorus in their tracks, and take a more artful approach instead. To some it’s more indicative of how the project is littered with half-baked ideas, whereas I see this more as VanWyngarden and Goldwasser maturing as songwriters.

The lead single, ‘Flash Delirium’, is a prime example of this. The tension is built expertly throughout the first three minutes as we get two verses, two pre-choruses, and a bridge before we are blessed with a harmonious and cathartic release at the chorus. Vocal arrangements here are reminiscent of sunshine pop acts circa 1966 like The Mamas & The Papas.

Tracks like opener ‘It’s Working’ and ‘Someone’s Missing’ are similar in vein. The former is brilliant, with melodically sound verses and a catchy and memorable chorus. The latter has VanWyngarden’s vocals showing shades of The Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson in its boyishness, which comes to fruition at the glorious, melodic outro.

‘Siberian Breaks’ exemplifies MGMT’s changed approach on Congratulations. A track purely about VanWyngarden’s love for surfing, the group saw fit to make an epic comprising eight different musical movements. The psychedelia is on overdrive, as the song includes celestial, harmonious, and jarring moments all in equal measure. The sixth movement is a personal favourite since there’s nothing better than a fuzzed-out baseline to bring you back down to earth from the euphoric high of the previous musical passage.

MGMT’s sonic climaxes transport the listener to neo-psychedelic dreamlands

Both the band and their producer Sonic Boom succeeded in portraying the psychedelic vision they all wanted. The musical palette is kaleidoscopic: the keys and synths especially expressive in tone and timbre. In tracks like the aforementioned ‘Flash Delirium’ and ‘Someone’s Missing’, MGMT’s sonic climaxes transport the listener to neo-psychedelic dreamlands. The production is balanced and bold, as all instruments played occupy the appropriate level in the mix and it’s clear to the ears, facilitating the pleasant, colourful musical soundscape MGMT aimed to present. And, at times, the acoustic guitar harkens back to ‘70’s glam rock in its slightly tinny sound and relatively high position in the mix.

The group’s conviction concerning their approach is also commendable. Songs like ‘Brian Eno’ and ‘Song for Dan Treacy’ illustrate the band’s appreciation for their musical influences and heroes, emphasising how this project was made for MGMT and MGMT alone. However, Congratulations is still full of their trademark neuroticism and oddities which are found in the subject matter of the songs or the weird lyricism, such as songs where VanWyngarden cherishes having a whistle handy in ‘I Found a Whistle’, or his odd references to “[hotdogs] getting cold” whilst lamenting how his band won’t reach the height of The Rolling Stones in the lead single.

The title track, ‘Congratulations’, perhaps summarises the band’s talents and sentiment the best. This beautiful ballad has the group at their most forthright, as it’s only comprised of verses and choruses with the percussion rightly foregrounded, providing the groove in tandem with the acoustic guitar, and the perky keys giving the track an infectious level of exoticism. VanWyngarden’s performance here is superb too, as his vocals are tastefully tuneful, and his acoustic guitar playing wouldn’t be out of place on an early 70s David Bowie record. All the while he confesses his distaste for fame and pop music, and his anxieties surrounding the band’s reception by their underground friends and fans: the only thing he asks for in return is “a great big congratulations.” This is without doubt the best track on the album.

Congratulations is the record that MGMT always wanted to make and it’s wonderful. On this LP, they grow out of the demands of pop music. They deserve to be congratulated for producing an LP that’s one of the best rock has to offer in the last decade.

Recommended listening: ‘Congratulations’

 

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