It’s been over a decade since MGMT released Oracular Spectacular, their era-defining debut. A record of youthful fantasy and cynical psychedelica, it soundtracked a generation of student parties and stoner chill-outs, its blend of care-free slacker-pop blended with summery melancholia striking a chord amongst recession-bound millennials on the cusp of adulthood. The success of Oracular Spectacular was runaway and unexpected, not least by the band itself. But in the face of such acclaim, MGMT suffered an identity crisis that made them reassess their sound, eschewing the pop principles at the heart of their debut and releasing two albums that alienated swathes of their neon-faced, headdress-wearing fanbase. To an extent, this was probably the point.
Now on their fourth album, MGMT are no longer the jaded youths who gave us the likes of ‘Kids’ and ‘Electric Feel’. Instead, they’re jaded adults, their sense of ennui still intact, but now fuelled by a very different source. If Oracular Spectacular felt like a push against adulthood, a refusal to take part in the phoniness of being a grown-up, Little Dark Age is a record from the other side of the divide. At times, it serves as a rumination on twenty-first century malaise, but it’s also a reaction to a changing political landscape, a landscape very different from the hazy days of Oracular Spectacular.
When ‘Kids’ was released, the world was in the grip of Obama-fever, his election win less than a month away, bringing with it the promise of hope. Today, faced with the reality of a far-right presidency (let’s not even say his name), a response of fuzzy, spaced-out festival rock wouldn’t quite fit. Instead, on the album’s title track, we get noirish gloom-rock, the band embracing an almost gothic sound on their monochrome lead single. The risk works, with ‘Little Dark Age’ one of several highlights on an album part-inspired by pre-apocalypse dread. The irony of finding success in the face of despair wasn’t lost on Andrew VanWyngarden who quipped “Apparently, we were more inspired to write pop music after evil took over the world.”
But the doom-heralding sound of ‘Little Dark Age’ is something of an anomaly. Throughout the album, MGMT stick to tightly-produced synth pop, though take the time to explore different avenues within the genre. Opening track ‘She Works Out Too Much’ is an upbeat day-glo affair, a sprightly, good-humoured track that suggests the band aren’t taking themselves so seriously this time around. It’s a song that deals with the pitfalls of modern dating, whereby liking selfies and swiping through Instagram is all part of the package. It would sound curmudgeonly, like a technology-fearing and heavy-handed episode of Black Mirror, were it not for its bounce and sparkle. Similarly, the wry ‘TSLAP’, an acronym for Time Spent Looking At My Phone, avoids any Luddite label thanks to its catchy refrain and succinct chorus.
For the first time in a while, MGMT sound like they’re actually enjoying making pop music. ‘One Thing Left To Try’ revels in big, dramatic synths, at points sounding reminiscent of Empire Of The Sun – strange, given that Empire Of The Sun once sounded reminiscent of MGMT. Even when the duo is in a decidedly more reflective mood, as on ‘When You’re Small’, the quality of this diverse and colourful record remains high. On their wistful penultimate track, the group surmises “When you’re small, you don’t have very far to fall,” perhaps a rumination on the band’s stratospheric rise and subsequent grounding.
But the apex of Little Dark Age is ‘Me And Michael’, a triumphant slice of vaporwave that floats along on cushiony synths and a belter of a chorus. It’s a more measured pop song than the hits of a decade ago, but just as striking and vibrant, symptomatic of a band who have aged with class. It serves as the centrepiece of an album imbued not only with a sense of purpose, but a sense of fun. If the first two post-Oracular albums felt serious and isolating, Little Dark Age is at least half a step back towards the infectious pop of their debut.
Much has happened since the autumn of 2007. Back then, MGMT soundtracked a time of great upheaval, a time when the global markets were crashing, but a political change of hands suggested things might just be OK. Eleven years later, we find ourselves in a recession hangover, coming to terms with a global political crisis that seems to be taking us back in time. Just as Oracular Spectacular felt reflective of its age, Little Dark Age is also a result of its own jumbled era – a testament to the duo’s capabilities. Now free of the pressure of following up their mega-selling debut, the band feels lighter, slipping back into a groove that felt long lost. Much has changed since 2007, but finally, it seems MGMT have found their place in the world once again.