It's an unfair fact of life that every new MGMT album must be compared to their 2008 breakthrough Oracular Spectacular. In the decade since its release rocketed the duo to stardom, many have clamoured for a return to that album's dayglo paganism, represented so well in the inescapable pop triptych of "Time to Pretend," "Electric Feel" and "Kids," Fans never understood that these incandescent singles were never what MGMT claimed to be about.
The songs were larks, tongue-in-cheek commentaries on fame that, coincidentally, happened to be three of the most vital pieces of pop music of the late aughts. Seeing that they had become the very celebrities they sought to mock, Andrew Van Wyngarden and Ben Goldwasser returned to their roots and released two consecutive records of inscrutable psychedelia that straddled the fine line between adventurous and tedious.
What then to make of Little Dark Age, a project that has widely billed as a "return" to pop for MGMT, despite the fact that the group were only really a pop band for those three songs? The album opens with the excellent "She Works Out Too Much," a batty banger that is easily the most unambiguously fun thing the band have written in years. The song is a flurry of giddy hyperactivity; Van Wyngarden's deadpan vocals share the stage with sinewy synth bass and a vaguely uncanny sample of a peppy workout instructor. Even the lyrics' trite commentary on social media can't dampen what is, ultimately, a thrilling sugar rush.
"Me and Michael," an anthemic synth-pop ballad, is similarly potent if a little more derivative. Considering the fact that MGMT have spent much of their career eschewing the mainstream, it's remarkable how comfortable they sound within it. The duo are committed to the M83 playbook here; the pulsing synths, the airy vocals, the inevitable "whoaaaa" line. It's all executed so well, and its simply a relief to hear the band making fun, affecting music again.
If only they could keep it up across the album, but MGMT simply can't help themselves. At its worst, the album's second half descends into the muggy malaise of their worst material. "TSLAMP" has all the cranky technophobia of "She Works Out Too Much" with none of the batty charm, while "Days That Got Away" is a plodding dub misfire. MGMT are certainly capable of making interesting music from outside the pop idiom — just listen to 2009's underrated Congratulations album, or Little Dark Age's "When You Die," a luminous piece of mellow psychedelia that stands with the album's pop heavyweights. Nevertheless, it's disappointing to see the group make the same mistakes (pat chord structures, weak vocals) that have plagued prior albums.
Little Dark Age, is above all, a reflection on the contradictions of making an MGMT album in 2018. It is, in some ways, an auditory microcosm of the band's career up until this point. Its first half features some of the group's sweetest pop confections since those massive singles, while its second delves into the muggy Barrett-isms of their more recent work. Which MGMT is the "real" MGMT? We may need another album to figure it out. (Columbia)