“Introspection, what am I really like inside?” asks MGMT’s Andrew VanWyngarden ’05, as he doubts the fundamental process that aids us in forming our identities. He realizes that introspection is inherently biased; as we look inside, we bring in all of the things we’ve learned from our integration with society.
He continues, “Introspection, why have all the prophets lied?” Now he goes a step further and doubts the legitimacy of the teachings that we invoke in self-analysis. Having discounted introspection, for its inherent bias and the fallacy of this bias, he turns to blind faith in an attempt to dissect his universe. “There’s a season when I will find out where I am/And there’s a reason, and I will someday find the plan.”
This chorus embodies the sentiment of MGMT’s self-titled new album. It is a condemnation of traditional thought processes and an appeal to something less abstract and more human.
MGMT’s distaste for societal norms is nothing new. After gaining myriad followers through its first album, Oracular Spectacular, largely based on the success of three hit singles, MGMT put out a second album, Congratulations, designed to be esoteric. They looked to weed out those unwilling to step away from the hustle bustle, smoke a joint, and completely immerse themselves.
On their latest album, they not only exclude the common person, but they also make a mockery of hir. On “Your Life Is A Lie,” Vanwyngarden sings, “To live a life/Waiting to die/Not knowing that/Your life is a lie.” He is commenting on the monotony of most people’s lives and how many of the things that people value are inconsequential. The condescension in these lyrics is mirrored in the music, as MGMT constructs the entire song out of two chords.
While the melody and chord structure of “Your Life Is A Lie” is strikingly simple, many of the other songs contain sophisticated melodies. The lead single and opening track “Alien Days” is like a roller coaster: as soon as the listener becomes comfortable, the melody changes direction.
To the casual listener bumping the radio on a commute home from work, this song is unimpressive; it doesn’t have the hook to catch the ears of most. But to the music aficionado engulfed in top-of-the-line Bose headphones, the song is gorgeous. It is designed for the listener “who love[s] the alien days/The nonstop alien days;” who allows music to take hir into an alternate universe.
Another great song is “Plenty Of Girls In The Sea,” on which VanWyngarden opens with the line “There’s plenty of girls in the sea/And plenty of seeds in a lemon.” In comparing the act of looking for girls to date to something so banal as seeds in a lemon, he shows his disdain for the act.
The source for this sentiment is revealed in the lyrics, “The lifeguard admits, his whistle in hand/That it isn’t the muscle, it isn’t the tan” and “The bartender concedes, from inside his vest/That none of the best ones were ever the best.” His lack of endorsement of dating isn’t due to an aversion to sexuality or social interaction but rather to the value system that we apply to judging others during these endeavors.
He scraps this value system based on societal norms for an existential solution, “Cause there’s plenty of girls in the sea/Whenever you want there to be.” He is saying that if we look outside of our value system, and toward what we instinctively like, we find that there is plenty to like out there. This idea isn’t only applicable to dating but to the entire expanse of the world that we judge.
This idea, that our instincts are more important than societal values, is the centerpiece of the album’s message.
The question of evaluating this album as a whole is tricky because in some sense, the nature of the lyrics forces the listener to take a side. Will you side with MGMT and their disdain for convention, or will you stand by your common ways and dismiss MGMT as pretentious?
I fall somewhere in the middle. I understand many of MGMT’s objections to societal norms, but I fail to see the positive vision that they promote. Observing their unique position—having both the gift to be able to do what they truly love for a living and the money to defy social norms while living comfortably—serves to further elucidate the skewness of their claims. I endorse this album as something fun to listen to when one has the time, but I certainly don’t endorse it as a gateway toward a more truthful existence.