MGMT makes a beautiful nightmare aesthetic for “When You Die”


(An image from MGMT’s music video for their new single “When You Die.” The protagonist is surrounded by four doctors as he and them all transform into a mural of flowers.)

MGMT has been away from making new music for just over four years and they’ve made their return mystifying and strange. Their first single and title track of their new album “Little Dark Age” was an interesting goth adventure full of odd occultisms. Their video for their new single “When You Die” is a beautiful nightmare both calm and dreadful, eerie and appealing.

In “Little Dark Age” MGMT mostly used stark dark and light shades to make a heavy contrast. “When You Die” overwhelms you with cascades of popping colors. Yet somehow, “When You Die” feels like the better paced, easier to handle music video.

“When You Die” should be awful to watch. Half of the video looks like it’s been run through a google image neural network. Many objects and people eventually twist and fall into themselves. If they don’t, they take on oppressive background patterns made from splotches of fuzzy colors or repeated objects. Nothing stays within its boundaries for long. The colors inside objects swell well out of their borders. The objects themselves distort into patterns both horrifying and beautiful.

It’s difficult to describe everything this music video does but somehow it’s very visually clean. Despite having so much mashed into it, it never becomes so cluttered that it isn’t compelling. A lot of psychedelic or intentionally weird music videos suffer from putting on too much of a show. “When You Die” does everything so perfectly that you never lose sight of the story and the nightmarish aesthetic.

As the title implies, the video focuses on death. In my interpretation, it tells a story of a 2-bit magician in an unhappy marriage living a hollow life. He dies in the middle of a video when a stage light falls on his head. At the point where he dies the video turns into an exploration of death itself. It creates a visual narrative of death as looking back on life. The hollowness of the man’s life coats everything. All the appearance he maintains in his marriage and job become lost underneath the terrible habits and unloving people that truly define him.

“When You Die” doesn’t tell the audience any of this in the lyrics. The video shows every inch of this man’s hollow life through powerful visuals. “When You Die” works so well because it always shows and never tells. You register how much this magician struggles and how hollow and repetitive things are by visual details. Each day he wakes up in his used-car salesman suit to wash down a scoop of neon blue cereal with alcohol. He goes to a bar where everyone, including his wife, watches his show with a mix of disdain and disappointment.

Despite the cruelty of the video, there’s a prevailing sense of calm and peace. Some of this comes from how beautiful and colorful some images are (explosions of flowers and gorgeous texture blends). Other parts of the peacefulness come from the seamless way the editing blends everything together. Everything feels connected because of the underlying plot and the great visual transitions. Plus, everyone moves in such a rote and emotionless way that the mood of the video feels calm. The man’s death feels inevitable – – maybe as inevitable as his life was.

The lyrics match well with the video too. Every line radiates needless aggression and unhappiness but Andrew VanWyngarden doesn’t pack a lot of emotion into them. VanWyngarden delivers them with a lot of punch and staccato but not a lot of feeling. His heavy-hitting, static vocals match perfectly with the dispassionate but powerful way this man’s mediocre life ends. The lyrics and visuals feel certain and sure but dispossessed.

Part of the second verse goes:
“Go fuck yourself.
You heard me right.
Don’t call me nice again.”

“When You Die” might be MGMT’s best music video – and “Your Life Is A Lie” was nominated for MTV’s best editing award in 2014. It’s beautiful, psychedelic, and ambitious. It captures a unique vision of life and death through tons of visual metaphors (the many unsupportive people in his life appearing as doctors who cut up his insides after he dies or the heavy presence of staring eyes).

Artsy analysis aside, “When You Die” looks plain awesome. It has voyages through space, a hospital scene exploding into a mural of flowers, and a grinning wife melting into a canyon made of meat and faces. It’s a gentle nightmare worth watching over and over again.


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