For a band whose mainstream break came partially on the back of a song called “Kids,” MGMT’s career path has been oddly fitting. On their fantastic and fantastical debut Oracular Spectacular, the duo’s compositions were marked largely by young age: aside from “Kids,” singles included the playtime of “Time to Pretend” and “Electric Feel,” which, for all its sensuality, also included the hook “Ooh, girl, shock me like an electric eel;” even some of its album tracks referenced childhood in their nostalgic titles like “The Youth” and “Weekend Wars.” Over the next few years, MGMT bounced into band-adolescence and tried to move past all those crazy things they did as kids, including the hit singles, with the psych-pop heavy and more mature (though far less entertaining) Congratulations.
The group’s self-titled third album finds them in teenagerdom and on the cusp of adulthood. MGMT shows plenty of willingness to experiment more than ever, and while it’s still rooted in the quest for seriousness that spawned Congratulations, there’s plenty to suggest that MGMT is still in this for the fun. The prepubescent vocal and threads of synth that open the album on “Alien Days” suggest a return to the childhood innocence of yore, and “Plenty of Girls in the Sea” is the jauntiest, sunniest pop song they’ve had in ages.
That doesn’t mean that everything – or anything – on MGMT is particularly familiar, though. Andrew VanWyngarden and Ben Goldwasser have plucked different pieces of terrain from their first two albums and reformatted them in such a way that the sonic landscape of MGMT is distinctly alien. Junkyard acoustic guitar strums signal “Alien Days”’ transformation into a freak-folk extravaganza featuring sharp electronic jabs and a deeper-than-usual vocal turn by VanWyngarden; “Your Life is a Lie” persists with a clanking industrial thump that becomes a hook in itself.
Though MGMT may be one of the few millennial indie rock bands who haven’t been plagued by the infamous-third-album-plague of dull sameness, it’s apparent that they still have some growing to do. The most egregious offense on MGMT is the simple waste of space: unnecessarily long, droning instrumental intros mar multiple songs – not that MGMT need to tone down the general instrumentation, as the best songs still feature all variety of sonic scribbles, but the most effective tracks here kick in immediately. VanWyngarden’s vocals also present a dilemma. In more pop-oriented moments, he’s still one of the best in the game. When he drops into his psychedelic drawl, though, his voice and lyrics have a tendency to get lost amidst the heaps of keyboards (though that mode can also provide an interesting turn, as when his cue turns “Astro-Mancy” from a dancefloor teaser to an acid-rock jam).
Yet for all its faults, MGMT is a resounding success. Progression isn’t always equivalent to getting better – Oracular Spectacular still is, and probably will always be, their far superior album – but this third album is almost definitely better than the junior release that would have been had MGMT stayed the electro-pop path. Indeed, there’s no problem with getting more interesting, if, occasionally, more oblique, with age; but some people are just more fun when they’re kids.