Monday, September 16, 2013

album review: 'mgmt' by mgmt

You know, psychedelic rock might be one of the most frustrating genres of music I've ever encountered, at least on the level of songwriting.

Keep in mind this is speaking as a fan of psychedelic rock - as anyone who saw my Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros review can testify, I'm a sucker for 'old hippie rock' and those attempting to emulate it (even if they don't completely manage to recapture it). And bands that dive straight into the weird, acid-tinged swirl of psychedelia often create some indelible imagery and powerful songs to support it. The Flaming Lips are often the band I'll point to who have managed to capture the raw insanity that birthed psychedelic rock in the mainstream today, and one of the reasons that particular band is so damn good is that they managed to capture more than just the flash of acid hallucinations, but the fragments of deeper meaning lurking behind said illusions, which they then fused together into compelling wholes. 

But here's my big issue with the themes and bands often present in this genre: they either go for complete, uncompromising sincerity towards light or darkness (like Edward Sharpe or, if we're going over to the progressive side, acts like The Flower Kings) or they flip the script, using upbeat psychedelia to contrast with twisted, grotesque imagery or incredibly dark lyrics. It's a rictus grin, a painted smile used to conceal the horrors beneath. Instead of the acid high, it's the acid freakout. The really frustrating fact is that the majority of psychedelic rock is lodged within one of these two camps and nowhere else, with the latter growing more and more popular today in this age of increased irony and general cynicism, particularly for the hippie ideal. And as I have mentioned before, I don't respond as well to bands playing that dichotomy, because I feel a certain purity of theme is lost. Yes, psychedelic rock can plunge into darkness (The Flaming Lips proved that this year with The Terror, one of the best albums of the year and one that scares the crap out of me), but when bands seek to play the dichotomy, I can't help but lose a certain deeper connection to the material in a lot of cases, most of the time because too many of the bands seem entirely too self-satisfied with coming up with the idea.

So let's talk about MGMT, a neo-psychedelic indie rock act that amassed a certain amount of critical acclaim by playing that dichotomy very well - and yet one with which I cannot really feel a connection. Now, let me make it clear that I don't think either of their first two albums are bad (Oracular Spectacular is better than Congratulations, though), but I have a hard time truly getting invested in them because the band is very much enamored with the concept of exploring, taking upbeat melodies and delivery and fusing it with some pretty dark lyrics all things considered, with the glaring contrast being one of the grandest selling points of the album. It doesn't help that it's very clear their albums are draped of layers of irony and sarcasm which makes any shred of authenticity very hard to find in the whole experience - which I suspect is part of the point, but it really doesn't resonate with me. 

However, I'm not entirely sure that MGMT plays to their strengths as much as they should. Their first album gained a lot of press and acclaim due to their fusion of psychedelic indie rock with complex and yet catchy rhythms that had a striking amount of populist appeal - so when the band made a left turn into art rock with their second album, they alienated a lot of fans. For me, that wasn't quite the issue, as it basically felt like a less catchy, more backwards-looking version of their first album, returning frequently to the fount of late 60s and early 70s psychedelia and prog rock and not doing a lot beyond that, particularly lyrically. That being said, as a fan of progressive rock, I can say that MGMT's attempts here are well-intentioned, but more than a little overstuffed, and their better tracks are their simpler experiments.

So, with all of that in mind, did MGMT manage to make something that I found compelling on their third swing, with a self-titled album three into their career (something I always take issue with, by the way)?

Oh boy, this is a frustrating one, the kind of album I have a real hard time liking, but also one I'm probably going to end up recommending because my problems with this album aren't going to be the ones with which most people will take issues. Don't get me wrong, this self-titled album isn't bad by any stretch of the mind, but it's far from great and it'll likely be just another step in the ongoing story of MGMT alienating their fanbase from their first album. In other words, get ready for another psychedelic art-rock album that tries to do way too much and doesn't really succeed at any of it (although it is a bit better than Congratulations).

Let's start with the positives. There is some good instrumentation on this album that does take the necessary steps away from the late 60s and early 70s, fusing it with their more modern sensibilities and a whole lot of electronic production. And really, it's a testament to the production that they manage to get it to sound remotely cohesive at all. For what it's worth, it does manage to gain a fair amount of swell and energy behind it, even if, for the most part, the mix is a complete mess. The album is significantly better when they strip away the extraneous elements (particularly the electronics, which don't do enough for the mix to warrant their addition) and let their occasionally strong drum machines and routinely complex melody lines take the lead. That's always been one of the great unsung strengths of MGMT: the band has a lot of skill making unique chord progressions sound catchy and interesting, and I wish they utilized it more.

And while I'm not the biggest fan of Andrew VanWyngarden's vocals, they do match the tone of the hazy, amorphous instrumentation really well, and while the production on the vocals is generally a little overdone where it doesn't need to be, the echo and reverb slathered all over the vocal production does contribute well to the atmosphere. And, as much as I take issue with the concepts behind the lyrics, I will admit that the technical songwriting is pretty damn good, particularly on songs like 'Mystery Disease' and 'Astro-Mancy'. It's descriptive, it flows well, and it occasionally has some evocative imagery (which you kind of need if you're making a psychedelic rock album). It doesn't exactly help my detachment from the whole album, but it's pretty enough, and I can appreciate the construction.

But now we have to move onto the slew of problems this album has, and really we have to start with the production on the instrumentation. I mentioned before that the mix was a mess, but messes with a purpose can work well in psychedelic rock - and it's a shame that there's very little coherent purpose behind the overuse of effects. And most of the time, they completely disrupt a good, possibly upbeat melody that was a decent enough song without them ('Plenty Of Girls In The Sea' is a good example of that). This album could have definitely used a sense of restraint in the production - which it doesn't have.

Now I get why this is the case - this is yet again another album filled with MGMT attempting to subvert lighter themes and elements in psychedelic rock with acid freakout horror. And while we get points where the lyrics support this (I'll come back to the lyrics in a moment), it definitely doesn't do anything for my disconnection with this brand of psychedelic rock, particularly when the overproduction has such an obvious origin point: MGMT really, really want to be The Flaming Lips. Between VanWyngarden's attempts to co-opt Wayne Coyne's falsetto, the reverb-heavy vocal production, the amorphous, cloudy. space rock-esque instrumentation, and the thick backbeats that seem to be lifted straight from The Soft Bulletin, it definitely is not difficult to spot MGMT's attempts to be associated with one of the best modern acts in psychedelic rock. And you know, with the right direction, I could almost see MGMT being worthy successors - they're good enough lyricists and talented enough at composing catchy, memorable melodies that I can definitely see MGMT possibly filling those shoes.

But that potential falls flat at nearly every turn on this album, mostly because of MGMT's shocking lack of understanding what makes The Flaming Lips work. Say what you will about Wayne Coyne and his many successes (and just as plentiful number of failures) as an artist, but the man is a mad genius who throws anything and everything into his music - and yet his compositions are smart enough to only have the necessary elements to make them work. Sure, they can be harsh or abrasive, but every piece has a purpose, and they all contribute to Wayne Coyne's underlying themes of the album. And finally, if we're looking for an artist who is both committed and sincere in his artwork, you can't look much further than Wayne Coyne and The Flaming Lips, because even when he's screwing with his audiences or guest musicians (and really, there are more incidents of that than I care to count), he's doing it because some part of his acid-damaged mind thinks it'll work. 

But when I look at MGMT, I see a group attempting to replicate the Flaming Lips' sound without understanding why the band works so well, and you see this across the board. The easiest place to spot it is in the production, where many of the melodies on this album sound so overproduced and overladen with sounds they don't need in order to create the psychedelic atmosphere (and again, the added electronics on the second half of the album don't help). The bigger telling point, however, is in the lyrical subject matter, because, once again, MGMT have returned to the familiar territory of juxtaposing upbeat melodies or vocals with dark or depressing lyrics (or, in some cases, vocal effects). And sure, there are moments that work (the Faine Jade cover 'Introspection' isn't bad because it has always operated on multiple levels, and I kind of liked the downbeat 'Mystery Disease' and the spacey 'Astro-Mancy'), but there's no coherency or narrative throughline to any of it, just single snippets, often into songs with a strong dystopian or depressive theme, without a single original thought or idea among them. Even 'Mystery Disease' sounds like a b-side from The Terror from earlier this year, and without a tighter focus, I don't feel the slightest iota of investment.

And without that coherence or driving focus, MGMT's self-titled album reveals itself for what it is: an album that is trying way too hard to be weird and off-beat, and yet isn't nearly as weird as they'd like to think it is. This album screams a complete lack of authenticity to me, and that's a far more alienating factor than any of the offbeat psychedelia on this album, which is kind of ironic in a twisted way. Look, I like weird, I like it when bands go off in bizarre directions, but I like it when said weirdness comes from a real place or has something to say, and MGMT have neither. It's a confusing, incoherent experience by design, to be sure, but when you can tell that MGMT are trying so damn hard to replicate The Flaming Lips and the genuine insanity that actually has a point in their material, this album falls far, far short of what it could be. And what's all the more frustrating, I must restate, is that this album once again doesn't play to the strengths of this band. The melody lines are swallowed and often indecipherable in the mix and the populism has been neutered chasing art school credibility that MGMT would get if they stuck to polishing and perfecting their strengths instead of trying to be somebody they're not. With that, this is a 6/10 for me, and while I've never been a fan of MGMT's direction in their psychedelic rock, I feel disappointed with this album all the same.

MGMT, if you want to fill the big shoes The Flaming Lips have left, go back and listen to The Soft Bulletin a few more times. I'm confident you'll figure it out.

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