Worst Albums Of All Time: MGMT – ‘Congratulations’

MGMT - CongratulationsThe thing with difficult follow ups is that you can’t want them to be difficult. Elliott Smith didn’t create a persona for himself as a troubled artist, he really was one – as he so aptly demonstrated with the aid of a butcher’s knife in late 2003. You can’t want to be depressingly artistic and troubled: it just has to happen. And that’s how MGMT’s second album feels to me: a concentrated effort to release a difficult yet artistically rewarding second album. One that may not be appreciated in its own time, but will become a cult classic somewhere down the line. Yet by consciously striving for something that can only be achieved accidentally, they have created a mess that fails from both a creative and a populist point of view.

So let’s start with their first album (putting aside the album of demos they released as “The Management” in 2005). Oracular Spectacular was everything a great pop album should be. From the moment you heard first single and album opener “Time To Pretend”, you knew you were in for something special: catchy keyboard riffs, dancey vibe, great melody, irresistible beat. It captured a certain strand of pop that hadn’t been revisited for a while: sort of like an updated Stone Roses/ Happy Monday baggy vibe with just a touch of shoegaze, updated for the internet generation. Follow up singles “Electric Feel” and (especially) “Kids” were equally as exciting, and the album as a whole held together as a great collection of crazy pschedelic indie dance pop (because that is indeed a thing that exists). Songs like “Weekend Wars” even touched on post-Beatles era John Lennon, and there are even occasional shades of Dylan in there. Admittedly, it’s not all perfect: there are a few meandering numbers like “The Youth” and “Pieces of What” which kind of don’t really ever get started or go anywhere. But there’s plenty to like elsewhere on the album.

So if you were going to follow up a hugely influential album like Oracular Spectacular, which type of song would you wish to focus on: their big anthemic dance-rock numbers, or the piddling, meandering, album-filler, chorus-lacking ones? You guessed it: they perplexingly and rather consistently opted for the latter.

When first reports came through that MGMT’s follow up album was going to sound very different and was disliked by the band’s label, this was actually good news for rock snobs like myself. Perhaps we would have another In Utero, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot or Pinkerton situation on our hands? And on first listen, things aren’t actually too bad. Opener “It’s Working”, despite the somewhat ironic title, is OK-ish. A nice keyboard/guitar riff opens up onto a pleasant enough melody, and reasonably epic sounding chorus. It’s no “Time To Pretend” in the opening song stakes though, and it’s hard to imagine that there were any MGMT fans that listened to that opening song for the first time and didn’t think “Really? Is that it?”.

Second track “Song For Dan Treacy” is a pretty good example of what is wrong with Congratulations as a whole. A rather weak vocal kicks off a sort of organ freak out and a bit of an unstructured mess. It sounds like it could have been written by any up-and-coming indie band. Not necessarily a bad thing, but these guys aren’t an up-and-coming indie band: they are the band that wrote “Kids”, justifiably voted the best song of 2008 by NME Magazine. (It certainly would’ve been in my Top 5 as well). “Siberian Breaks” is another example: dull as dishwater. In fact you could pick just about any song off this album and struggle to think of anything positive to say about it.

Rolling Stone, in their infinite wisdom, ranked the title track as one of their 50 best songs of 2010, which is pretty fucken incredible given that 2010 was a great year for music. But keep in mind that this was a list that also contained Ke$ha’s “We R Who We R”, two tracks by autotuned soulster Drake, an unearthed classic-era Rolling Stones track (thus stretching the concept of 2010 to its absolute limit), and a fucking Sade track. (Sade! In 2010!). Who says payolla is dead? That wasn’t the 2010 that I remember. One must assume that a lot of the songs were padding due to the fact that neither Springsteen, Dylan or U2 had released an album that year.

As an exercise of getting across the pointless nothingness of Congratulations in comparison to its illustrious predecessor, I thought it would be interesting to compare the first two singles off each album side by side. The first single off an album is traditionally a statement of intent: a “here I am” or “I’m back”, a stand up and take notice sort of track. So here’s “Time To Pretend” (the first single off Oracular Spectacular) versus “Flash Delirium” (the first single off Congratulations):

See what I mean? It’s not like “Flash Delirium” is the worst song in the world or anything. But if you listened to Congratulations ten times in a row, I’ll wager that you’ll still struggle to remember anything about any of the songs afterwards. Congratulations is to Oracular Spectacular what Princess Amidala is to Princess Leia in the Star Wars series. Memorable vs forgettable.

And that’s just it: Congratulations is not a terrible album as such. It’s just a huge waste of potential, a massive let-down, an anti-climax. An inspirational void. There’s nothing actually mind-bogglingly awful here. If this had been the band’s first album, then it might have made a lot more sense: this was them perfecting their craft before unleashing the massive step up in songwriting that was Oracular Spectacular. How it happened the other way around is something of a mystery. It’s like having a first date with Scarlett Johansen, only to have Gwyneth Paltrow turn up for the second: a sophisticated, large breasted blonde replaced by a reprehensible, flaky and potentially mentally impaired substitute. A limp-wristed hand shandy after a night of hot sex.

So overall, not the absolute worst album of all time then. But in my book being boring is in some ways worse than being awful – especially when you’ve proven that you’re capable of much, much better. But don’t write MGMT off yet. I still hold out hope that their next album (supposedly self titled and already in the works) will be a return to form. They’re a young band and it’s too early to write them off just yet. Fingers crossed that they recover their earlier inspiration in due course.

Find out where MGMT – ‘Congratulations’ ranks in our Worst Albums Of All Time Chart.


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28 Responses to Worst Albums Of All Time: MGMT – ‘Congratulations’

  1. Xenon says:

    I think you are being too harsh on Flash Delirium. It is the most complicated song ever. It doesn’t have one particular melody for a chorus or a verse or a bridge. I mean you can define any parts of the song as a chorus or a bridge or a verse. It’s like an anthem which builds up to a fiery climax. Its’s not the pop-oriented look of Oracular Spectacular but it is very similar to songs like Indie rokkers from “Time to Pretend”. I think its their best song. Its not my favorite song from MGMT but I think its their most artistic and ambitious in terms of layering, vocals and lyrics….

    • Danbo says:

      Wow, if you genuinely think “Flash Delirium” is the “most complicated song ever”, you desperately need your musical horizons expanded. It’s a flat 4/4 disco beat, ffs. Try some Bill Bruford from the late 70s, or some Snarky Puppy from the mid 2012s. Please.

      • Dan says:

        Complicated doesn’t equal odd time signatures and fast playing, dude. It’s thematically complicated and takes you on a cohesive journey in the span of 4 minutes. It’s obviously not “the most complicated song ever”, but I’m sure Xenon didn’t mean that literally.

  2. Novella says:

    Yeah, I definatly think this is too harsh, I mean yes , you can have your opinion,but If you cant appreciate them straying out of pop and into deeper tunes and fluttering around the indie spectrum, then you probably wont get the meaning or all dementions of this album, or even the next one! Just becuase its not exuding mainstream pop culture does not mean the album let down all MGMT fans, I’ve been a fan for quite sometime and appreciate every song put out, some more that others, but it means no less. You cant expect a band to base everything off of their mainstream tracks such as Kids, Time To Pretend, and Electric feel. For some such as myself whos favorites include Peices of what and the Youth, I think they are seeing the band for individual peices of musical poetry , rather than shutting a full album down ue to lack of upbeat pop sound, Come on, either way its a great band and everything they do is notably fantastic.

  3. youhavebadtaste says:

    Hey Dingus who wrote this,
    There were so many untrue things you said about this album and MGMT as a whole. First off, MGMT ISN’T A POP band. They strayed away from the central pop crap that the music industry has come to. They are weird, and that’s what it’s supposed to be. If you say “Oh ya bro MGMT fan fer lyfe homie kids is my jam broski,” that’s not their type of music. The only songs like that are Time To Pretend and Electric feel, both of which they did not write themselves. (Those songs are awful anyways) Also, completely dissing Siberian Breaks like that? That song has helped me through some tough times. Listen deeper to the music before you put it in a box. I admit, I HATED MGMT when I first listened to them. The only song I liked WAS Kids. Now, I’m a true MGMT fan, and nothing can change That

  4. Robert says:

    “It’s no Time to Pretend” From that point on you should discard everything this writer has to say. This writer was hoping for some catchy synth pop songs and nothing more. Congratulations is an album with much more thought and charisma put into it. It’s psychedelic pop, I wonder what this idiot though of Piper at The Gates of Dawn. Probably thought it was too weird and that he’ll stick to Another Brick in the Wall Pt.2. Do yourself a favor and give up on music if you have the same low brain opinions as this guy.

  5. Benjamin says:

    Dude seriously, you dont know jack shit about music. Congratulations must be one of the best psychedic rock albums of this past 15 years. I can even tell that by the things you wrote of oracular spectacular your just one of those guys that only puts the most popular songs of mgmt in your ipod… What about of moon, birds and monsters o 4th dimensional transition??? Seriously dude your just one more of those who dont know anything about psychedelic rock. Do your homework man

  6. Jesse says:

    Awful review, you can’t just compare everything to their debut album. Also, way too harsh considering some of these songs are very good

  7. Ted says:

    This album actually exceeds their previous in quality and creativity. There’s more to music than catchy, repetitive beats or even cohesive melodies. Oracular Spectacular was MGMT’s attempt to create catchy, superficial radio hits in order to get onto the mainstream. They were never a pop band. Now they’re done catering to you casual radio listeners, and music reviewers who only search so far as to find the next catchy pop hit. In Congratulations, they created something new, wonderful, complex, and certainly far from conventional. Every song on this album gave me goosebumps. It’s fucking amazing. And if you don’t enjoy it…well I suppose your brain just works differently. I respect that, but you could’ve have simply said “I think Congratulations is a bad album because I personally don’t like the way it sounds”; that would have been a much more honest and intelligent review.

  8. Sage Shapiro says:

    Shut the fuck up, you’re pretty much saying, “I DON’T LIKE THIS ICE CREAM BECAUSE IT’S NOT SALTY”. MGMT is not a pop band. Don’t you think the Rolling Stones liked this album because they know a fuckton more about music than you pathetic assholes? You and your $30,000 salary go have a shitty day.

    • Mike says:

      Nope, I’m saying I don’t like this ice cream because it tastes like dog shit.

      • Dan says:

        You’re a pompous, elitist idiot. You even say yourself in the opening paragraph that MGMT are trying to create an album that isn’t appreciated in its time but will be in years to come. Hey look, here you are not appreciating it in its time. I can tell that you really don’t care about music and only care about looking cool. You aren’t cool.

  9. CS says:

    I’m sorry, I appreciate your time, but this is simply crap. Congratulations is one of the finest albums of the last 10 years. I don’t know why you’d take the time to “analyze” an album you think is so poor. You have missed the mark, because you weren’t the mark.

  10. Dylan says:

    Hard to take a reviewer seriously who thinks a bands previous album should dictate their follow-up. It’s also incredibly perplexing that you’d even try to compare Time to Pretend to Flash Delerium. Both songs have something to offer to be sure, but what those songs offer are intentionally incredibly different. This review compares apples to oranges while foolishly believing the oranges are apples. Worst review of all time.

  11. Dan says:

    “And that’s just it: Congratulations is not a terrible album as such. It’s just a huge waste of potential, a massive let-down, an anti-climax. An inspirational void. There’s nothing actually mind-bogglingly awful here.”

    Yet it makes your list of “worst albums of all time”. You’re a fucking joke, dude.

  12. Dan says:

    Here’s the thing: When this album first came out, I was hugely disappointed by it. I thought it was absolute garbage and listened to it once or twice and never thought I’d listen to it again. Then one day I decided to give it another spin, and it was like flipping a switch in my brain. Suddenly, I was able to see everything I had missed about it before and was ecstatic that I had been able to discover such a gem. I couldn’t believe I had so readily dismissed it after only a few listens. It was a sort of musical turning point for me; I hadn’t been able to understand it before because I had such a solid idea of what MGMT should sound like, and this wasn’t it. The point is, MGMT aren’t a candy shop. They don’t sell glossy lollipops and chocolate covered bubble gum. They sell art. You have to listen to it. You have to want to like it. You have to try.

  13. Billy says:

    This was posted on June 19th, 2011. That was 5 1/2 years ago. Mike, I would like to give you a chance to retract your statements and admit that you now “get” this album. It is not only gaining appreciation in the music community with each passing year, but also becoming many artists personal favorites. I am no MGMT super fan and I can admit that this album is simply incredible. It doesn’t get old, in fact, it gets better. I truly believe that I will hear it being talked about again in 40 years. Give it another chance.

    • Mike says:

      Ok fair enough. I’ll give it a relisten now and let you know if my feelings on it have changed.

      • Mike says:

        Ok so I just listened to it right through now, and while it’s definitely not as bad as I remember, I’m still not a fan. It’s an OK indie album.

        I guess it doesn’t help that it came out at a time when there was lots of really exciting indie music around and following hot on the heels of their great debut this just felt kind of flat to me. Still does, to be honest.

        Maybe it comes down to personal taste: I will always prefer hooks and songwriting over noodling. I love experimentation, but it has to have a good song in there for me to really enjoy it. I’ll always prefer the Beatles’ Revolver over Sergeant Peppers, for example.

        Maybe it will still be talked about in 40 years, I don’t know. I’ll remember it as the archetype disappointing follow up to a classic album for a long time, that’s for sure.

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