Music for Dark Times

Dark Times

MGMT and Poliça’s new albums offer songs of solace and alarm.



You can’t talk about MGMT without mentioning their experimental phase. Fresh off the high of 2007’s Oracular Spectacular, their first major-label album, and its three genre-defining singles, “Electric Feel,” “Time to Pretend,” and “Kids,” they released the unorthodox Congratulations and MGMT, which managed to squander all of their banked goodwill. To Rolling Stone, lead singer Andrew VanWyngarden confessed that most everyone wrote them off after MGMT. “They were like, ‘Oh, they have no pop juice left in them. It’s not happening again.’” Well, it is: On Little Dark Age, MGMT swing back to their synth-pop roots, and it sounds like no time has passed since the dorm-room brilliance of 2007.

This might be, in part, because Oracular Spectacular and Little Dark Age have both been shaped by periods of worldwide unrest. In the mid-2000s, it was the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the ups and downs of the Bush presidency—a vaguely apocalyptic moment, when young people were contemplating the consequences of never-ending war. Now it’s the age of Trump, full of an altogether new set of anxieties, though the prospects for the future seem as grim.

For VanWyngarden and Ben Goldwasser, the other half of MGMT, 2007 must have felt a more cynical time than ever, and Oracular Spectacular reflects that. “Weekend Wars” is a song about growing up written in the language of wartime—“Once when I was too lazy to bathe / Or paint or write or try to make a change / Now I can shoot a gun to kill my lunch / And I don’t have to love or think too much”—and “Kids” is about making room for the future by conserving in the present. “Control yourself / Take only what you need from it,” they sang then; at the time, the critic Robert Christgau summed up the mood of the album in a single, tidy sentence: “Like Vampire Weekend, only as synth-dance rather than indie-rock, they convert a quality liberal education into thoughtful, anxious, faux-lite pop.” That existential anxiety led the band to use fantastical, psychedelic music as a refuge.

A decade on, the apocalypse now seems closer than ever, and the old formula still works. VanWyngarden said that half of Little Dark Age was written before Trump was elected president and that some of the happier, more frivolous parts came afterward, as a burst of sanguinity after “evil took over the world.” The latter category includes “Me and Michael,” a catchy song with ambiguous lyrics, and the single “Little Dark Age,” which isn’t actually that happy at all and describes what sounds like a deep journey into the self, like “Weekend Wars” before it. “Breathing in the dark / Lying on its side / The ruins of the day / Painted with a scar / And the more I straighten out / The less it wants to try / The feelings start to rot / One wink at a time,” goes the first verse. It’s classic MGMT: The synths are syncopated and full, and there’s a propulsive backbeat that enlivens the otherwise simple melodic line.

Other songs depart from this formula. “One Thing Left to Try” is a bit too dark (it’s a song about suicide), while “TSLAMP,” on the other hand, is a bit too glib (it’s about how much time people spend looking at their smartphones). “She Works Out Too Much” is about a heterosexual relationship coming to an end because it’s too much work—and because the man doesn’t work out enough. The single “When You Die” is another song about life’s end, although it’s more menacing, almost as if the narrator is attempting to reconcile with death by embracing the macabre. “You die / Words won’t do anything / It’s permanently night / And I won’t feel anything / We’ll all be laughing with you when you die,” VanWyngarden sings. While Little Dark Age is more grounded than Oracular Spectacular, they share the same genetic code. VanWyngarden and Goldwasser are in their mid-30s now; their music has grown up some, but the world hasn’t kept up.

Poliça formed in 2011, about a decade after MGMT got together, and despite the groups’ having similarly bureaucratic-sounding names and similar musical references, Poliça moves in a much different direction. Their 2011 debut album, Give You the Ghost, was a bass-heavy trip through a dark, intricately rhythmed dreamscape; the songs were abstract, referencing drinks, drugs, mothers, motherhood, death, and men. The voice of Channy Leaneagh, the group’s lead singer, was smeared near the bottom of the mix, down below the drums and bass. The result was claustrophobic and intensely compelling, conjuring a world through her brooding mood.

The group has spent its last two albums becoming less sonically and emotionally crushing, with Leaneagh’s voice moving closer and closer to center stage. Poliça’s subjects have also mutated into more political forms. Shulamith, the follow-up to Give You the Ghost, was named after Shulamith Firestone, the writer and activist who was a central figure in the radical phase of second-wave feminism. Shulamith isn’t explicitly political, though it delves deep into the politics of love. “I don’t want a diamond ring / Found a man, and he’s found me / It’s a pact like a lion’s den / You come out, but you can’t come in,” Leaneagh sings on “Tiff.” “Go ahead and play for keeps,” goes the chorus.

On United Crushers, Poliça’s third studio album, the arrangements skewed more pop—you could now hear Leaneagh’s voice clearly—and her lyrics grew more explicitly political; the album came out in March 2016, just about four months before Trump was crowned as the Republican Party’s presidential candidate. That also happened to be in the midst of nationwide protests against police brutality. “Keep it cooking, all the cops want in / Brim brim when we lose they win / Saying hands up, the bullet’s in / God was si-silent / Bed of nails / Chains that sail / Ash and rope / Pay my bail,” goes the song “Wedding.”

Poliça’s latest, Music for the Long Emergency, pairs the band with the Berlin-based orchestral group s t a r g a z e, and the result is another despairing political album. Of its seven tracks, only one, the 10-minute dirge “How Is This Happening,” is directly about Trump’s election. As Leaneagh explained to Consequence of Sound, “I felt it coming and I didn’t expect better from our broken electoral system…. BUT still everyday it’s like ‘what the fuck, why isn’t that an impeachable offense?!?!?’” Yet the song is emblematic of the newfound anger that infuses the album’s new sonic direction. Leaneagh’s vocals are now front and center, and the bass has dropped out some, replaced by s t a r g a z e’s beautifully arranged woodwinds and string section.

While the song’s lyrics are simple, mostly a series of searching rhetorical questions—“How is this happening? / How we can’t breathe? / How we can’t see?”—their repetition brings home Leaneagh’s feeling of disbelief. And like MGMT, she spends much of the rest of the new album answering the implicit question provoked by this sense of shock: We have to live in the meantime, but how?

Little Dark Age and Music for the Long Emergency reference the Trump era in their titles, and both are attempts to respond to the puzzle of how to live on our roiling political sea. That similarity makes for a similar unevenness. “Cursed,” from Poliça’s album, sounds like what you’d get if you ran Zack de la Rocha’s rap through a NutriBullet and then layered the mush with distorted synths. “Days That Got Away,” off MGMT’s album, is a spacey lament for youth that’s merely OK—like an unsatisfying day at the beach.

Both groups’ ambitions are admirable, however. Their albums succeed ultimately because they’re not perfect and they’re not total protest music. With the reality-show story lines and pace of scandals coming out of the White House, it’s easy to focus on the news exclusively, to the detriment of everything else in your life. Little Dark Age and Music for the Long Emergency do the essential work of reminding us how to live—that there’s more to life than our edge-of-the-seat anxieties and the latest sordid tale. Even activists need to rest.

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