MGMT Put the LOL in 'Loss of Life'

BY Isabel Glasgow Published Feb 21, 2024


“Psychedelic? I don’t even know what that means,” Andrew VanWyngarden recently quipped in an interview with Uncut, re-enforcing the indefinable, mind-bending ethos of his and Ben Goldwasser’s MGMT. Nearly twenty years since their career, genre and decade-defining debut single “Time to Pretend,” MGMT have fulfilled their make-music-make-money mantra, and have struggled to evade its massiveness. Lengthy gaps between recent albums have made each a de facto comeback, often construed as reactionary, either pushing against or toward 2007’s Oracular Spectacular. In reality, a return to form for the definition-eschewing duo is simply a return to evolution driven by curiosity.

Rather than leaning into nostalgia, Loss of Life sees MGMT moving into an uncertain future and finding stability in indestructible love. It’s like gazing down the barrel as “policemen swear to God love’s seeping from their guns,” as Little Dark Age’s title track-turned-TikTok-soundbite stated, its recent virality proof of MGMT’s endurance. In a surprising turn from their return to synthpop, Loss of Life pivots toward classic rock and ‘90s alternative, with an underlying spaciness that oscillates between dreaminess and cosmic dread.

Born of the Little Dark Age sessions and sharing the angst of “When You Die,” “Bubblegum Dog” promises another later-career hit while tapping into the duo’s lore of a shelved song with the same name. “None of this seems like fun, but isn’t that the point, man?” sneers VanWyngarden atop a grungy acoustic strum that rises indignantly to crashing cymbals and wailing solos, Goldwasser’s sparkly harpsichord adding some levity. Whether “the shame of vitriol aimed at the bubblegum dog” references nebulous anxiety or the mob demanding more music, MGMT resolve to “bang our heads against the gong” and tame the beasts that hound them, an acceptance common on Loss of Life.

For all the malaise “I Wish I Was Joking” throws toward days that drag, drugs that “sink your mind and steal your friends” and dreams-turned-chores to finance “$6 coffee and municipal parking and Disney on Ice,” its lucid synthscape smooths it with serenity. MGMT’s insistent “Your Life Is a Lie” reinforced life’s tedium, but now VanWyngarden is “kinda into being home,” the love inside, an antidote to monotony. And when sadness does creep in, even “half of love is still love.” Crucially, MGMT find ways to put the LOL in Loss of Life; Whether it’s howling hounds that open “Bubblegum Dog” and its cheeky wink to “maybe tinkle on the lawn” or the title track’s cartoonish fanfare affirming “there’s a way to quiet all the noise” — followed by a ghoulish garble of “that’s enough!” — there’s often comedic relief to temper its faint cynicism.

And despite its morbid title, Loss of Life contains some of MGMT’s most sincere and hopeful music. With all the urgency and tortured romance of late ‘70s soft rock, Christine and the Queens duet “Dancing in Babylon” unravels like a Fleetwood Mac fever dream: its booming drums and impassioned piano melting into warped synths until a pulsing techno beat slides into frame. The pair’s voices blend pleasingly as they tussle and make peace over big emotions, yet optimism never fades. Unlike Little Dark Age's self-conscious twist of “me and my girl” into “Me and Michael,” now VanWyngarden proclaims “I wanna tell everyone I know I love you.” Once again, MGMT use their eccentricities to warp a pristine pop song into something beautifully bizarre.

But not all songs on MGMT’s classic rock radio work to the same effect. “People in the Streets” is planted firmly in the middle of the road, and the sluggish “Nothing Changes” lives up to its title, save for a sudden turn to languid lounge. The latter is unfortunate, as its wide-eyed images of speaking with birds in dreams and falling through the Pleiades lose their cosmic country sparkle atop a dull arrangement. If you’re yearning for folky finger-picking with many more twists and turns, “Nothing to Declare” brings this in spades; sweetly serene, it’s an ode to inhibition-free wandering far from the hedonism of “Time to Pretend.” The world is still VanWyngarden’s “fine de claire,” but now at the whirlwind’s end, the drunk walk home is to “where you are, keeping the sanctuary warm.”

If Loss of Life has a sanctuary of warmth, it’s the tender beauty of “Phradie’s Song.” “Did I dream before? / It felt like I couldn’t love anymore,” VanWyngarden murmurs atop a haze of synths and acoustic guitar reminiscent of early Neutral Milk Hotel. Rife with (literal) bells and whistles, it scintillates with imagery of morning sun and dewdrops, then ascends to synths that twinkle and crack, an acid trip lullaby warped by the space where sleep bleeds into reality. It reveres love as an oasis, and rightfully so, as the twee “Mother Nature” — where the only Oasis is its ‘90s Britpop stylings — paints a bleak world where, “I torched the fields again and killed an honest man / And now I understand Mother Nature.” If cruelty is inevitable and fighting it is hopeless, it’s best to look away and find hope in the beauty that exists in spite of the carnage.

With death as a long-running theme across MGMT’s discography, maybe the world has always been ending. Rather than shake in the shadow of the grim reaper, MGMT read death like a tarot card, a chance for change and rejuvenation. On Loss of Life, they shift their perspective from paranoia to optimism. The staticy synthscape of its title track crackles like cosmic noise, magnifying the vastness between an ending and beginning: yes it’s unsettlingly empty, but the blankness affords possibility. At last, MGMT turn toward the light, a hard-earned triumph for the duo — lost in the giddy hedonism of “Time to Pretend,” it’s easy to overlook its profound sadness as VanWyngarden lists all the pieces of normal life they’ll miss. Beginnings, endings — it’s all the same when things come full circle.

(Mom + Pop)

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