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Album review: MGMT - Little Dark Age

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MGMT have overseen a blazing renaissance; transcending the mire of pessimism, their morbid humour serves as a subtext beneath dense, technicoloured compositions.

Little Dark Age is multi-layered; at once a dedicated trawl aimed at plundering the 80s of all its most iconic tropes and a disturbing, psycho-political commentary on contemporary America. The album begins triumphantly with the unhinged ‘She Works Out Too Much’, which is instrumentally indebted to aerobics culture and self-aware of its status as the opening track, proclaiming – “Get ready to have some fun!” This “active” participation is complemented by the detachment with which we react to current events referenced in the lyric, “Welcome to the shitshow, take a comfortable seat” – a theme explored throughout the record.

The title track, a melancholy synth pop gem reminiscent of The Cure at their gothiest peak, is masterful and deserves to be regarded among the best singles of 2017. Careful stacking of vintage tones builds up to vividly suggest the court of some mysteriously nocturnal aristocrat. Thematically, the song deals with desensitisation to gun violence as vocalist Andrew Van Wyngarden sings, “The image of the dead, deadens in my mind”. At five minutes, it’s fairly lengthy, but sustains interest through a constantly mutating instrumental accentuated by whip-crack gated-reverb snares.

Track three, ‘When You Die’, sheds the former’s gothic cloak but plunges further into darkness; parts of the song seem drawn from carefree 60s soul, but this is juxtaposed with the lyrics such as – “I’m ready, ready, ready to blow my brains out”. Crescendos build with a frenzy of arpeggiated synth then abruptly cease, giving way to a more acoustic aesthetic. Sampled laughter creates an unsettling atmosphere coupled with queasy modulation of key.

‘Me and Michael’ is simultaneously the most joyous high and MGMT at their most disturbing. You will not be able to help but do a jerky little dance when it strikes up. Of all the songs this is the most unabashedly 80s, so much so that it verges on vaporwave. However, in spite of the feelgood sequencers, the track deals with a latently corrosive relationship being ignored for the sake of idealised love – take the lyric, “The danger signs will never let the feelings die”. It’s incredibly dorky and great fun, but with a serious message that might wash over you on a first listen.

If what you’ve already heard doesn’t sound strange enough, new levels of weird are reached mid-album once we get through the main singles. ‘James’ in particular strikes one as plainly bizarre, with its sonorous vocal cold open and reflective, airy tone.

The penultimate ‘When You’re Small’ again is operating at various levels. Tying in with the themes as a whole, it explores individual powerlessness in the face of global forces, yet there’s also the crude antonym of “high”, which is dealt with in the previous track ‘One Thing Left to Try’ (‘coincidentally’ four minutes 20 seconds in duration). Here the rhymes are pretty lame. However, given the artistic control the duo has thus far exerted, it is likely an ironic indulgence against the backdrop of breaking strings and reversed sounds.

MGMT close what is unquestionably their best album so far with the lamenting ‘Hand it Over’. It’s a real bath for the ears, with gorgeous gospel choirs giving voice to a delightfully ambiguous refrain. The fadeout does end rather abruptly though, which, again, may be intentionally awkward.

All in all, ‘Little Dark Age’ opens a bold new chapter in MGMT’s career. Moving beyond the quirky pop hits that brought them fame, they blossom into a rich post-ironic phase on this diverse and ideas-dense record.

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