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.