MGMT, 'Congratulations' (Columbia)

8
Congratulations
Critical Mass
Release Date: April 13, 2010
Label: Columbia

by Charles Aaron

The closing and title track of MGMT's second album could be a career coda -- a tender acoustic elegy with ornate keyboard sprinkles, and frontman Andrew VanWyngarden playing an arch dandy resigned to a life of half-assed guilt assuaged only by the ministrations of phonies and lackeys. He admits to being "dead in the water," a blasé narcissist who'd "rather dissolve than have you ignore me."

Since before most of us little Ziggy Stardusts were crawling on our knees toward it, the rock-star dream machine has been sold as a seductive caution -- charismatic naïf seizes public's imagination with undeniable anthem, gorges on fame's spoils, crashes tawdrily. Each new generation throws its version of the mythic party, then we sift through the rehab refuse for life lessons, fashion tips, and tabloid nosh.

So what of VanWyngarden and his partner Ben Goldwasser? They shuffled the narrative with 2007's effortlessly melodic Oracular Spectacular, in which the impish Wesleyan lads ironically yet plaintively lamented how they were "fated to pretend" to be rock stars, only able to fantasize about the models, the cars, the moving to Paris, the gagging on your own spew. For these two aimless issues of the educated classes, stardom was an absurdity -- it wasn't gonna happen, and even if it did, it'd just make them miss their moms.

But after their songs blew up into romcom and ESPN fodder, they became actual rock icons, or at least today's hipster demi-version (traversing hemispheres and velvet ropes, collecting Paul McCartney as an admirer, legally wrangling with the French government). And now they've ditched the tie-dye-and-headband accoutrements and written a weary song cycle about their disillusioning celebrity sojourn.

Except that they haven't, really. With help from producer Pete "Sonic Boom" Kember of legendary psych-rock traffickers Spacemen 3 and Royal Trux's wastrel diva Jennifer Herrema, the Brooklyn-based duo may have concocted the most playfully artful bad-trip pop album since the Monkees' 1968 soundtrack Head. VanWyngarden claims he's abandoned irony and wants to reveal "who we really are." Ergo, judging by Congratulations, MGMT are really just earnest, unjaded fanboys -- fanciful Anglophiles who worship Syd Barrett, Ray Davies, Marc Bolan, et al., and would rather stay home, listen to records, and geek out than snort up Fashion Week.

Opening track "It's Working" is the album in capsule form. Devilish guitars and harpsichords, eerie synths and strings, bobbing bass, and shifty percussion all scurry along, while VanWyngarden delivers a fast-forward account of how splendidly isolating it can be to surf an Ecstasy curl. Then, blood still racing, he warns, "You know it's not the same as love." The album's literal high point -- a jittery series of palpitations called "Flash Delirium" (featuring Herrema) -- exuberantly filters Prince through an anxious Joe Meek freakbeat.

Plus there are the two kooky, direct tributes, "Brian Eno" and "Song for Dan Treacy": The former, a manic goth-bubblegum ditty, sets up in a spooky cathedral where Eno dispenses bewildering wisdom; the latter follows the enigmatic leader of ramshackle punk poets Television Personalities as he wanders around creeks and cobblestone lanes with a tear in his eye.

Certain tracks may not endear themselves over time -- the 12-minute, '70s tarot-pop bong hit "Siberian Breaks," for instance. But despite being haunted by the group's flip from rock-star charade to reality, Congratulations still brims with mischievous energy. And for a series of druggy Dada setpieces, it feels uncommonly, emotionally honest. MGMT may be dazed, but they're not tweaked out yet.

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