After big hits on their first album, MGMT quietly became an avant-garde band. The MGMT that made “Little Dark Age” sounds like an entirely different band. That shouldn’t be a knock against them. It’s been 11 years since “Oracular Spectacular” came out and a decade is more than enough time for an overhaul.
Whatever MGMT is now, they know their identity very well. “Little Dark Age” has a cohesive aesthetic and mood that makes for an album where every song fits.
Listening to the singles trickle in, I was curious about this album but never hyped. I loved the music videos – – and even wrote about “When You Die” – – but could take or leave the music. The album pulls everything together in a satisfying way. It stays consistent with the sounds that it uses and it even plants a whip crack sound across the album so that there’s a strong sense of continuity between tracks. It’s also irresponsibly ’80’s fueled.
If anything, the album is a bit too 80’s for me. There’s a type of very melodramatic, emotional ballad that the ’80’s loved and that MGMT abuses on “Little Dark Age.” “Me and Michael” is dripping with old ’80’s ballad features, from the glittery, high-pitched synths, to the smoothed out vocals, to the soaring chorus. The album does build around ’80’s moods like this so that they become more endearing and less obnoxious.
Still, I didn’t miss the five- minute long ballads of the ’80’s because I don’t think they’re particularly interesting. These ballads are very smooth and easy to follow. They feel profoundly pleasant and don’t have any abrasive sounds, either. Yet, the vocals of ’80’s ballads feel emotionally flat to me and outside of the very solid sense of mood and a catchy lyric or two, I don’t get much from them.
MGMT does manage to build on the ’80’s vibe and make it more interesting. “TSLAMP” works a lot better for me. It’s rhythmic, the bass lines feel funkier and more complex, and the ambient sounds (the whip crack) feel sharper. The composition does a few cool things too, like how the vocals and instruments shift pitch when the chorus hits or the weird little string solo in the middle. I’d like it if more songs took on a style like “TSLAMP” where MGMT still delivers that campy ’80’s feel, but also include tons of rich instrumentation and weird little ideas.
Songs like “TSLAMP,” “One Thing Left to Try,” and “Little Dark Age” solidly improve on the ’80’s formula but the album really excels when MGMT leans into weirdness.
They kick off the album with “She Works Out Too Much,” one of the better intro tracks I’ve heard. It establishes a lot of the lyrical themes of romantic disappointment and modern dating and it sets the ’80’s tone of the album with samples of exercise videos that had me visualizing leg warmers and jumpsuits.
Most importantly it has this tiny distortion effect on the synths where every note peters off at the end and spirals into an echo sound. That small synth effect captures what “Little Dark Age” does very well: “Little Dark Age” distorts a certain type of mood we all know pretty well. “Little Dark Age” takes on all the trappings of 80’s pop that makes it feel glitzy and glamorous while packing songs with melancholy and troubled lyrics and also putting in worrisome little sounds (whip cracks and laughter). The contrast feels fundamentally weird and very fun.
The songs I enjoy most on this album are the ones that lean into this odd contrast and play it up. The songs that take happy ’80’s pop vibes and melt them in a microwave of pessimism and off-kilter noises were the most entertaining to me.
MGMT is at their strongest when they lean on the weird feeling they make from contrasting moods and synths that melt on the ends. “When You Die” grew on me with each listen for its over-the-top aggressive vocals and super happy instrumentation. It’s a delightfully uptempo track with pleasant strings, synth swells, and piano rhythms that also constantly derides the listener. It’s filled with laughter that doesn’t feel benign and vocals that feel like a defensive response to you listening to them.
I also adore “Days That Got Away” for being a really dynamic, mostly instrumental track. “Days That Got Away” is seamlessly mellow. Every beat transitions neatly into another and each beat is sonically interesting. MGMT throws in all sorts of alien noises, space sounds, and echo effects so that a combination of several very simple rhythms forms into something melodious and fun.
Over the course of a few listens “Little Dark Age” increasingly won me over. There aren’t a lot of tracks I love on the album but none that I hate. Individually, the songs feel mediocre but in the context of the album every track works. Every track feels like it belongs. Even “Hand It Over” – – a weak closer to the album – – makes sense in that it’s a quiet call for change after a lot of loud worrying about modern times. This isn’t necessarily an album of that excels at everything, but it’s an album where everything fits and that’s laudable.