The sound of young children laughing generally brought one thing to mind in 2009: the introduction to MGMT’s massively catchy “Kids.” The irresistible keyboard riffs of “Kids” as well as “Time to Pretend” were simply hard to ignore. But after breaking into the mainstream with its debut, “Oracular Spectacular,” MGMT has decided to hide from the spotlight on “Congratulations,” the band’s left-field sophomore effort.
As forewarned by the band, there is nothing that mimics the accessibility of its past hits. The immediacy has drifted away and is replaced by compositions steeped in layers that build on top of each other and diverge every which way, a seemingly calculated backlash against its pop success. It’s a reactionary record, but a mediocre reaction at best.
The band’s sudden shift can be heard at the outset with the opener, “It’s Working,” which mixes surf rock with harpsichord and some “Pulp Fiction”-esque guitar riffs while changing tempos on a whim. The answer to their question, “How will I know if it’s working?” is that yes, this musical experiment they’ve conducted is indeed working. That’s until the song ends and all goes south from there.
Some of the songs come off like a bad Jackson Pollock piece, where MGMT proves that throwing everything but the kitchen sink doesn’t always yield favorably – in fact, rarely. “Brian Eno” and “Song for Dan Treacy” provide cases-in-point where organs invoking Halloween horror are blended with a touch of punk brashness. It might sound appetizing, but comes off as quirky and as random as the song titles.
However, that’s not to discredit the band’s knack for stretching its musical boundaries, as seen in the overly ambitious 12-minute head trip that is “Siberian Breaks.” The range of musical styles from plaintive acoustic guitar to mind-bending sequencers and synthesizers is impressive, but the song also sums up the record in one word: unfocused.
This is nowhere more apparent than in the rambling “Flash Delirium.” From sparse flute playing to an ending full of cacophonous guitar and drum bashing, any notion of focus is thrown out the window. It’s a shame given how well MGMT was able to synthesize diverse styles on its debut.
Lyrically, the band goes off the deep end especially on “Flash Delirium” with its poorly conceived phrases such as “The hot dog’s getting cold / And you’ll never be as good as the Rolling Stones.” A substance or two must have played a part. The vocals on the record are still intact though, with Andrew VanWyngarden still hitting high notes and bringing a dreamy quality to the songs. They may not be as memorable or prominent as “Oracular Spectacular,” but fine nonetheless.
Despite the disappointment that may arise from the album’s obtuseness, the closing title track offers a little redemption and should reconcile at least some of the ill-harbored feelings against the band’s change in direction. “Congratulations” winds down the album with some vintage, ethereal piano that is startlingly similar to Arcade Fire’s “Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)” along with sunny guitar that might make The Beach Boys proud. In contrast to the album’s generally erratic nature, the title track has some semblance of structure to keep the musical elements intact with a sense of direction.
To say that “Congratulations” is a grower would be a gross understatement. Those merely wanting another “Kids” or “Time to Pretend” will be disappointed while those seeking something unconventional might be in for a pleasant surprise. With the lack of any real radio-friendly fodder, though, “Congratulations” should have MGMT flying under the radar for a while.
If MGMT’s mission was to retreat into a reclusive state where it could embrace its creativity with little concern for widespread appeal, it certainty has succeeded, although to the likely detriment of losing a sizeable chunk of its fan base.