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MGMT’s great new album ‘Little Dark Age’ is here (stream, review)

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You gotta hand it to MGMT for always sticking to their vision, no matter how much backlash they face for doing so. It’s been ten years since Oracular Spectacular singles “Kids,” “Electric Feel,” and “Time To Pretend” became dominant pop-indie hits (can you believe it’s been that long?), and MGMT have not once shown any desire to satisfy the fans who want another song like that. Their followup album, 2010’s Sonic Boom-produced Congratulations, went down a rabbit hole of obscure ’60s/’70s psych and ’80s post-punk influences, and MGMT did a terrific job of bringing those sounds together and modernizing them. They used their fame to ride for artists like Mark Fry, Dave Bixby, The Wake and The Chills. They used late night TV appearances as opportunities to cover Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd. One song on Congratulations was a tribute to Television Personalities’ Dan Treacy, and another was a tribute to Brian Eno. The “Kids” fans were turned off, and it usually seemed like the psych/post-punk fans who would have liked Congratulations were too turned off by “Kids” to check it out. It was a tough position for such a talented band to be in.

MGMT followed Congratulations with a self-titled album in 2013, which was even more alienating than its predecessor, and sometimes too eccentric even for the band’s true believers. Now they’re back nearly five years later with Little Dark Age, a fantastic album which might have a chance of uniting the Oracular Spectacular fans and the Congratulations/self-titled ones. There’s still nothing even close to “Kids,” “Electric Feel,” or “Time To Pretend,” and the vibe is still heavily psychedelic, but Little Dark Age has some of the catchiest and most danceable songs of MGMT’s career outside of those three singles. They’ve got a heavier ’80s new wave/synthpop influence than ever before, which blends nicely with their now-trademark psych sound. Sometimes they veer towards the hazy, nostalgic pop of guys like John Maus and Ariel Pink (the latter of whom contributes to this album), and — though they surely influenced the subgenre — some of Little Dark Age is the closest that MGMT have ever come to chillwave. It’s a really fun record, and one that still honors MGMT’s outsider influences. It’s the kind of album that MGMT always seemed destined to make.

The first two singles, the title track and “When You Die,” quickly register as two of the most immediately satisfying songs that MGMT have written yet. On the title track, they pair a rubbery psych-funk bassline with a sinister vocal delivery, and the chorus brings in some nice arpeggiated synths and a vocal hook that’s built to be remembered. “When You Die” is bigger and brighter and in that classic MGMT style of combining whimsical ’60s psych and modern electronic pop. It’s also the reason that “Go fuck yourself! You heard me right!” is finally an MGMT lyric, so, props for that. Those two songs come back to back in the first half of the album, and they’re sandwiched between other pop-minded songs: the Ariel Pink-ish opener “She Works Out Too Much,” the new wave ballad “Me and Michael,” and the chillwavy “TSLAMP,” which has some of the album’s nicest falsettos but lyrically takes on the tired topic of how often we use our smartphones (the acronym in the title literally stands for “time spent looking at my phone”).

With all those attention-grabbing songs packed into the first half of the album, compared to the two that follow, Little Dark Age starts feeling like it might be a little front-loaded as you approach the midway point. There’s the muted “James” and the trippy instrumental “Days That Got Away” that Oracular Spectacular fans might call “filler” and self-titled fans might call “the best part.” But then MGMT shift right back into gear with “One Thing Left To Try,” the best non-single on the album. It’s driving synthpop with just the right amount of MGMT’s ’60s psych side, and the most stunning vocal performance on the album. They follow that with the “Across the Universe”-esque folk of “When You’re Small,” and then — like Congratulations — the album ends with a ballad that succeeds just as much as the upbeat songs, “Hand It Over.” With its psychedelic take on ’70s disco/soul harmonies, “Hand It Over” is the closest that MGMT have come to that kind of music since “Electric Feel,” but where you sensed a hint of irony in that song, this song sounds tender and sincere. It shows how far MGMT have come and how much they’ve matured as a band, even while the masses didn’t always agree with their creative decisions.

If you want to slap a narrative on Little Dark Age, you can’t really call it a “comeback” because — despite it being their longest gap between albums — they didn’t really go anywhere. You also can’t call it a “return to form” because it’s anything but. But it does feel like there’s some general sense that Little Dark Age is reeling back in some of the fans who checked out after the Oracular Spectacular craze died down. Maybe it’s just been long enough that people are finally recognizing Congratulations as the classic it deserves to be recognized as, and the enjoyable Little Dark Age is just the right kind of album to keep the rediscovered excitement for MGMT going.

Little Dark Age is out now via Columbia. Stream it and watch some videos from the album, below.

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