Dillo Artist Profile: MGMT
By Steven Norwalk
While taking experiemental music classes and playing dorm gigs at Wesleyan University, Ben Goldwasser and Andrew WynGarden would sign their email correspondences “The MGMT” as a way to satirize corporate culture. They adopted their tongue-in-cheek email signature as the name for their budding musical project and, after a series of EPs, saw their first real major success with the release of their debut album, Oracular Spectacular (2008). The album was a commercial and critical smash that has since been included in both Rolling Stone’s and NME’s lists of the greatest albums of all time. Following Oracular Spectacular, the duo released Congratulations (2010) and MGMT (2013) and are currently working on a fourth studio album, due out later this year. With each subsequent release, MGMT have become more and more uncompromising, ignoring the limitations of conventional pop music in order to delve deeper and deeper into the strange recesses of their psych-pop psyches. In preparation for the band’s Dillo Day performance, here are five of their best songs:
As a listener, it’s pretty much impossible to orient yourself at the beginning of “Time to Pretend.” The track starts with a slew of synth noises that alternately call to mind bubbles, tweeting birds, chirping crickets, and a particularly irritated whale. These sounds are just the first taste of the expansive sonic palette MGMT explore throughout “Time to Pretend,” the first track off their debut album. Each instrument adds its own distinct color and texture to the arrangement — the squirming synth lead, the shimmering guitar riff, the fat and fuzzy bassline — and the resulting combination provides the perfect backdrop for VanWyngarden’s description of his rock n’ roll fantasty. It’s unclear whether his “decision to live fast and die young” is ironic or not, but, ultimately, it doesn’t really matter. “Time to Pretend” is an exquisite journey through a technicolor underwater metropolis, a psych-pop masterpiece of hedonism and irrevence. All you can do is go along for the ride.
It’s hard enough to write a banger in 4/4 time, the time signature favored by almost all pop artists. But on “Electric Feel,” MGMT manage to do it in 6/4, a time signature almost never used by anyone ever. Their unconventional decision pays off: this feel-good dance track flawlessly marries the duo’s penchant for experimentation and knack for pop craft. VanWyngarden’s capricious vocals and spot-on disco falsetto combine with a musical arrangement that draws heavily on tribal music to create an irresistible, if a bit unusual, musical aesthetic. The song’s fans include everyone from Katy Perry to Frank Ocean, and “Electric Feel” proves that, for a great band, innovative and fun are not mutually exclusive categories.
Perhaps MGMT’s most popular song, “Kids” is also one of their best. The track is remarkably simple — four chords, a four-on-the-floor drum beat, a few interlocking synth lines — and yet the emotions that these straightforward elements conjure are ambiguous and complex. The song’s instantly recognizable synth hook packs a lifetime’s worth of wistfulness into its six notes, while VanWyngarden’s vocals are a mix of of affection, admonition, and nostalgia. Given the track’s uncomplicated construction, it’s fitting that “Kids” is a song about moderation: “Control yourself/Take only what you need from it.” Thankfully, MGMT heed their own advice on “Kids” and let the song’s few basic constituents speak for themselves; the duo knew that nothing else was required to craft such a bittersweet classic.
Over the course of its four minutes, “Flash Delirium” morphs from a simple drum machine pattern into a double-time screamo jam before coming to a screeching halt. Along the way, it incorporates a disco bassline, some Beach Boys-style harmonies, and an anthemic refrain that could pack stadiums. This odd combination would spell disaster if not for the song’s masterful construction. Each section bleeds effortlessly into the one that follows. But even more importantly, the diverse styles that MGMT employ are not gimmicks; they serve a purpose. “Flash Delirium” is meant to distill the sensory overload and constant anxiety that characterize modern American culture. Its uneasy and frenetic instrumentation captures the “delirium” induced by hyper-connectivity, the 24-hour news cycle, and the ubiquitousness of social media. Find “Flash Delirium” a bit overwhelming for your taste? That’s the point.
Compared to the bombast of some of MGMT’s more ambitious tracks — I’m looking at you, “Siberian Breaks” — the simplicity and earnestness of “Congratulations” can come as a breath of fresh air. Over a classic descending bassline, VanWyngarden directly addresses the complications of fame and the impossible balancing act of staying true to an artistic vision and pleasing an expanding fanbase. The track’s lyrics almost serve as a modus operandi for the band post-Oracular Spectacular, revealing that, instead of attempting to replicate the success of their last album’s singles, the duo would rather follow an authentic artistic vision. By the time the song reaches its conclusion, it radiates acceptance and contentment as VanWyngarden sings, “Lay down the quilt upon the lawn/Spread my arms and soak up congratulations.” In a sense, “Congratulations” is the anti-“Kids,” and it serves as a fitting conclusion to the group’s excellent sophomore album.