MGMT released their fourth album, Little Dark Age, last Friday, Feb. 9. through Columbia Records. It’s a politically driven, dark, and ultimately triumphant artistic effort from the indie-pop duo. Matteo Heilbrun ’18 and Marc Greenawalt ’18 discuss the group’s return to form and whether or not they can capture the attention of a new generation of listeners in this uncharted political and artistic climate.
Marc Greenawalt: Did you know MGMT went to Wesleyan?
Matteo Heilbrun: Fuck you.
MG: Ok, it’s been four years since we both came to Wesleyan because of MGMT, five years since their last album, 11 years since their debut, and 14 since VanWyngarden [’05] and Goldwasser [’05] lit up Wesleyan dance floors with the sweet strains of “Time to Pretend” and “Kids.” Early press has promoted the album as a return to form. What are your thoughts on a back-to-basics pop album from MGMT?
MH: I think it’s great. Little Dark Age achieves what Arcade Fire aspired to on Everything Now. VanWyngarden’s lyrics are topical, but not trite, and the music is dark yet danceable. “Hand It Over” depicts a politically corrupt America ruled by a joker, and “When You’re Small” confronts the folly of American exceptionalism through simple but evocative language. The lead single addresses contemporary feelings of doom through its tense and restrained verses, its morbid imagery, without sacrificing the appeal of its electro-gothic pop. “Little Dark Age” is the perfect dance song for the Trump era.
MG: I agree. MGMT has accentuated the darker elements that have always lingered in their music. (Does anyone else remember the part in “Time to Pretend” when they die of asphyxiation?) Oracular Spectacular contained two disparate halves: the first characterized by candy-colored pop songs and the second by hazy, anxious psych-folk. This division describes the arc of growing up when pure pleasure gives way to something darker and more demanding. Over a decade later, MGMT has grown up. After doubling down on obtuse psychedelic arrangements on their sophomore [album] Congratulations and getting lost in the woods on their self-titled third album, MGMT has synthesized the two halves of their debut into a compelling whole—marrying an astute pop sensibility to compositional strangeness.
MH: Little Dark Age may be a return to hook-centric songwriting, but I don’t think it’s as uniformly psych-folk inspired as some of their past work. Rather, it references a wider range of influence. While “When You’re Small” evokes Barrett-era Floyd, “Hand It Over” sounds like a cross between Pet Sounds and late-60s Motown. “One Thing Left to Try” and “Me and Michael” could easily feature on the “Stranger Things” soundtrack, further proof that the 80s are in style.
MG: Genre-defining bands like LCD Soundsystem and Wolf Parade both mounted comebacks last year after brief hiatuses. Five years after MGMT, is Little Dark Age a comeback album?
MH: For me, it’s totally a comeback album. I was 13 when I first heard “Time to Pretend” on the radio, in the backseat of my best friend’s family minivan. The absurd, preposterous marine gurgle of the intro gave way to chiming guitar octaves and the now iconic synth line; the fantastical, satirical lyrics about drugs, rock and roll, death, and childhood transported me for the first of many times. To have MGMT back churning out glossy yet emotionally nuanced pop, right in time to provide the soundtrack to my senior spring feels right, almost poetically circular. If these new MGMT songs can affect teenagers as much as Oracular Spectacular affected me, then it’s definitely a comeback.
MG: I’m a little skeptical of your optimism about the album’s commercial viability. Though the three pre-release music videos suggest Columbia’s faith in the album (miraculously, given the back-to-back commercial suicides of Congratulations and MGMT), the musical landscape is much different than it was when MGMT conquered the charts with their three titanic singles (“Time to Pretend,” “Electric Feel,” and “Kids,” for anyone who somehow attends Wesleyan without at least a passing knowledge of the band) over a decade ago. Those songs achieved success through their pop appeal, though the band has always billed itself as an indie act. 2018 is a strange time for both genres. Trump’s election placed a demand on pop to get political, a challenge the genre has long proven woefully incapable of meeting. Indie has erstwhile lost the cultural prominence and influence of its mid-00s peak. Is there still a place for MGMT in 2018?
MH: No indie acts are anywhere near the avant-garde of popular music right now. SZA, Kendrick Lamar, Lorde—bona fide pop stars—are the most cutting edge acts in music today. Nonetheless, I do think there’s a place for MGMT in our current moment. They’re a pop group at heart. We fell in love with them for the Wesleyan-dorm-composed “Time to Pretend” and “Kids,” as well as “Electric Feel.” The reasons we care again now is because they’re back to writing radio-friendly melodies.
MG: Do you think this new album will earn them any new fans or only service those who remember when Oracular Spectacular came out?
MH: I think “Little Dark Age” is good enough to attract new listeners. The question is, does it slap enough for a Fountain Ave. party like their biggest hits?
MG: Time will tell.
MH: Speaking of, didn’t you meet Andrew VanWyngarden?
MG: Indeed. Senior week, freshman year, the sun’s out, “Kids” blasting from the stereo in a WestCo Down 2 double. And who the fuck walks in? Mr. VanWyngarden. He looked a little stoned and he didn’t say much, but before leaving he settled a long-disputed rumor: MGMT did not meet in the WestCo triple. Sorry folks.
MH: Wow. Maybe they’ll actually play a show here, even after we’re gone. So, to sum things up, MGMT are back to peak form. Is this a fluke? Only a brief foray back into pop? Or are they back for good as a mainstay in the musical landscape?
MG: Either way, Little Dark Age deserves some congratulations.
MH: No puns.
MG: What about—Little Dark Age puts the spectacular back in Oracular Spectacular. Or wait— MGMT’s Little Dark Age is over. The time to pretend that you still like MGMT has ended.
MG: Little Dark Age is likely to start some weekend wars on the dance floor, if ya know what I mean.
MH: Fuck you.
Matteo Heilbrun and Marc Greenawalt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.