on MGMT’s ‘Congratulations,’ the ‘Pinkerton’ of the 2010s
It's early 2020, and like a lot of music nerds, we're still in the process of looking back on the music of the previous decade, and one 2010s album that we're doing a deep dive on is MGMT's polarizing 2010 sophomore album Congratulations (which also turns 10 this year). We included it at #137 on our list of the best albums of the 2010s (where we called it the Pinkerton of the 2010s), and we probably would have ranked it even higher if it was a list of the most memorable albums of the decade. Congratulations was an album that very few people saw coming, and a pivotal album in MGMT's career, one that started the path they're still on today. It was the album where MGMT made it clear who they were (huge music lovers with vast knowledge and eclectic taste) and who they weren't (a band who was going to write songs like "Time To Pretend," "Kids," and "Electric Feel" again). There are still people who wish they were the latter, and who maybe haven't even listened to most of the music MGMT released over the past ten years, but MGMT have stayed true to who they are, and they laid it all out on Congratulations. Even though they were already ridiculously popular, Congratulations was arguably the true introduction to MGMT. In many ways, it's the definitive MGMT album, and -- in my humble opinion -- it's their best.
As anyone with even the slightest interest in "indie" or "alternative" music already knows, "Time To Pretend," "Kids," and "Electric Feel" -- the three poppy singles from MGMT's 2007 debut album Oracular Spectacular -- made MGMT a very, very popular band. They're still one of the greatest indie success stories in recent memory because of those songs, and they've spawned countless imitators whose MGMT influence mostly stops at those three songs (like Foster the People). And it isn't surprising that, even from the start, Columbia Records were bigger proponents of those songs than the members of MGMT themselves. Two of them ("Time To Pretend" and "Kids") were recorded for a 2005 EP when MGMT's Andrew VanWyngarden and Ben Goldwasser were still in college and still going by The Management, and by the time Columbia got a hold of them, the band -- who already didn't take themselves very seriously -- had broken up. "It was a fluke that these goofy songs we wrote in college were hits," Goldwasser told Pitchfork. "We never considered the possibility that people would like them."
MGMT were being ironic and sarcastic when they sang about being rockstars on "Time To Pretend," but the real irony is that that song did make them rockstars. And once they achieved stardom, they decided to go even more "indie" than before they were popular. Nothing on Congratulations is "goofy," and none of it is designed to please Columbia or cater to fans of their three biggest hits. (MGMT are out of their contract with Columbia as of late last year, and honestly I'm surprised it took that long.) With Congratulations, VanWyngarden and Goldwasser left their smartass college days behind and made a very earnest album full of implied and literal references to psych-pop and post-punk oddities, the music they actually liked. Congratulations' tracklist alone is like a Hunky Dory-style love letter to their influences, with one song named for Television Personalities singer Dan Treacy and another named for Brian Eno. They recorded Oracular Spectacular with Flaming Lips collaborator Dave Fridmann, but they picked a guy with an ear for even weirder sounds for Congratulations: Sonic Boom of cult space rock faves Spaceman 3. A year after Congratulations came out, MGMT put out a Late Night Tales mix that featured them covering a Bauhaus song and included songs by crate-digger favorites like post-rock progenitors Disco Inferno, psych-folk cult heroes Mark Fry and Dave Bixby, Grace Slick’s pre-Jefferson Airplane band The Great Society, and a host of post-punk and jangle pop OGs like Felt, The Durutti Column, The Chills, The Wake, and more (not to mention aforementioned influences Spacemen 3 and Television Personalities, and stuff that takes less digging but is nonetheless awesome like Suicide and The Velvet Underground.) To support the Late Night Tales mix, they covered a Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd song on Fallon. I don't know how cynical of a music snob you have to be to roll your eyes at all this, but these were moves that would've been cool for any band, let alone a popular, major label, Billboard-charting, soon-to-headline an arena band. Like Nirvana in the early '90s, MGMT all of a sudden found themselves in a place where they were more famous than most of the bands that influenced them, and they used their fame to put a spotlight on all the artists they liked, hopefully introducing those artists to thousands of new fans in the process.
But MGMT are more than just fans of great music. They really know how to write great music too, which is extremely evident throughout Congratulations. There's nothing as bluntly poppy as "Kids," but some of the Congratulations songs are just as catchy in their own, weirder ways. There’s the album's opening one-two punch of "It's Working" (which kind of sounds like one of those '80s post-punk bands doing a sped-up cover of "Happiness Is A Warm Gun" from memory and then getting it mixed by, well, Sonic Boom) and "Song for Dan Treacy" (which has one of the best spastic circus-punk riffs this side of Cardiacs). Lyrically, "Brian Eno" can pretty much be summed up as "we fucking worship this guy," but musically it's a hooky, restless post-punk anthem that doesn't really worship anyone in particular. And the album's closing title track is a swaying, hungover acoustic ballad that would count as "radio-friendly" for any radio station playing Bowie, The Kinks, and The Beatles.
Even the more overtly weird songs on Congratulations bury hooks beneath the murk or build up to them. "Someone's Missing" starts out as the kind of raga rock ballad that you could picture a young George Harrison coming up with, and once you're fully mesmerized, it hits you with a cathartic power pop refrain. Another of the ballads, "I Found A Whistle," takes the sounds of aforementioned psych-folk balladeers Mark Fry and Dave Bixby and updates them for the new millennium, eventually building to the kind of baroque pop maximalism that every Pet Sounds-loving indie band tries their hand at eventually. And then there's the total chaos of lead single "Flash Delirium" and the sprawl of album centerpiece "Siberian Breaks." The latter is a successfully executed 12-minute song cycle of the Smile/Abbey Road variety, and the former tries to do the same thing in just four louder, faster minutes. Those songs proved MGMT's 2008 one-track, 14-minute single "Metanoia" wasn't a one-off experiment after Oracular Spectacular but more like a catalyst for what the band would do next.
And really, the seeds for Congratulations were even being sewn on Oracular Spectacular. The album sounded jarring compared to the three big hits of its predecessor (two of which were -- again -- unserious songs written half a decade earlier), but it didn't sound that different from the deeper, more psychedelic Oracular cuts like "Of Moons, Birds & Monsters," "The Handshake," "4th Dimensional Transition," "Future Reflections," and the tripped-out mid-section of "The Youth." It's hard not to wonder if the MGMT fans who were disappointed in Congratulations were really even into most of Oracular Spectacular. Or, as Bradford Cox (whose band Deerhunter released a much more universally acclaimed, similarly-minded album the same year as Congratulations) put it, "Everyone hated this album before they even heard it but anybody that wasn’t into this album just doesn’t like pop music. I think it was a press invention, that this album was difficult. It’s not even avant-garde or anything. I don’t understand what the fuck there is not to be into."
Congratulations had its immediate defenders like Bradford, but a huge chunk of music fans fell into one of two groups: MGMT fans who would rather hear another "Kids" than Syd Barrett and Brian Eno worship, and people who probably would want to hear Syd Barrett and Brian Eno worship but already wrote MGMT off as cloying, pseudo-indie. To revisit the comparison we made on our decade-end list, it's a phenomenon not at all unlike Weezer's Pinkerton. Like MGMT, Weezer were indebted to alternative music, but they went from a demo to a major label album and experienced so much overnight success that tr00 indie types usually turned their noses up at them or just didn't care. When Weezer made their darker, rawer, weirder followup album (that really wasn't a million miles away from Blue Album's deeper cuts), it disappointed the people who were anticipating it, and probably didn't reach most of the people who would've seen the appeal in it. Rolling Stone's readers infamously voted it the worst album of 1996, and now it's widely considered a highly influential classic, and often considered Weezer's best work.
We're already starting to see a similar re-evaluation happening for Congratulations, and that re-evaluation has been aided by the fact that -- unlike Weezer -- MGMT have been sticking to their guns. After Pinkerton flopped, Weezer went on hiatus only to resurface five years later as a band whose main goal seemed to be recreating Blue Album. MGMT went even further down the weirdo psychedelia rabbithole with 2013's self-titled album, and they reeled it back in a bit on 2018's Little Dark Age, an album which seemed to cement Congratulations -- not Oracular Spectacular -- as the genesis of today's MGMT. That album is the overall best-received MGMT album according to Metacritic and a lot of its acclaim has come packaged with positive re-evaluations of Congratulations. With Congratulations' 10th anniversary and MGMT's anticipated new independent album around the corner, I suspect the re-evaluations will only keep coming. Time will tell if it actually becomes an influential cultural touchstone like Pinkerton did, but it's not outside of the realm of possibility. As proved time and time again -- from The Beatles to Bowie to Nirvana to Radiohead to Kanye to Beyonce -- there is something very appealing about hearing pop-friendly artists explore more difficult, more adventurous music, and there's something to be said for the lasting exposure that these more popular artists give to more difficult music when they embrace it. Oddball psych isn't as fashionable right now as it has been in the past, but trends are almost always cyclical, and when this stuff loops back around, maybe it'll be because MGMT's Congratulations introduced a whole new generation to the thrills of tripped-out, genre-defying pop.