The 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.