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MGMT’s Muddled Third Album Will Leave You Just as Confused as They Seem to Be

MGMT, 'MGMT' Review
SPIN Rating: 4 of 10
Release Date: September 17, 2013
Label: Columbia

Among the things for which we should be grateful to Spandau Ballet: the blood-simple guitar hook anchoring their 1983 global hit “True.” Hip-hop and R&B act PM Dawn sampled it in 1991 for their own hit, “Set Adrift on Memory Bliss,” infusing the original’s creamed corn with the right strain of remembrance-of-things-passed wistfulness. It’s not one of those déjà vu things: “Set Adrift on Memory Bliss” is better art than “True.”

Inspired cross-pollination also anchors Frank Ocean’s “Nature Feels.” The final track on his debut 2011 mixtape, Nostalgia, Ultra, stands out as its one true erotic moment, with Ocean drawling, “I’ve been meanin’ to fuck you in the garden” while a coiled, rubbery bass riff, rhythm strums, and a high synth line evoke blissed-out pastoral splendor. Give MGMT’s “Electric Feel” credit: Ocean and his producers grafted it wholesale. The 2007 song, taken from the duo’s own smash debut, Oracular Spectacular, augmented the groove with breathy vocals and not much else; it’s not just that Ocean is a more compelling singer, but he confirmed our suspicions that the MGMT boys merely tripped over a great hook instead of noticing it. On their third and eponymously titled album, Benjamin Goldwasser and Andrew VanWyngarden don’t notice a lot of things, including their lack of hooks or any sort of identity. A confused, confusing album, MGMT treats contemporaneity as if it were an insulin shot. Bits of Flaming Lips here, Animal Collective there. The spare, echo-drenched dub calisthenics of Primal Scream are seemingly a major influence. So are third-tier Madchester acts like — get this — Candy Flip. In other words, MGMT sound like nothing more than two dudes who happen to write songs, which means they sound like everyone and no one. I don’t know who this record is for: dilettantes reluctant to commit to the other acts mentioned? After the strange, confused turn of 2010’s Congratulations, that tentativeness might look like strength to fans; MGMT’s conceits and music are now fully joining hands and rolling in the meadow. With titles like “Mystery Disease” cloaked in stereo panning foofaraw, trip-happy doggerel has never come easier for them.

But, first, surprises: When VanWyngarden and Goldwasser slip into the exhortative, the nonsense falls away. Women may perplex them as much as the recording studio, but oh, what fun they have when they remind us (and themselves) that peace and love are just pretty words concealing discontent about someone or something. On the fuzzy stop-start distortions of “Your Life Is a Lie,” they snap their fingers at the guy who took the singer’s girl, the sort of quick, self-assured cad played by Alan Alda in Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors, about whom the singer says, “Count your friends in your hands / Look again / They’re not your friends.” Fortunately, VanWyngarden plays Woody Allen; we know he’s infuriated when the organ gets louder, and he intones, “Where is that girl who knows it’s alright?” But the song has no energy — just a wavering tonal control that settles for petulance. A compelling singer would shade the material so that a hint of rancor could come across.

Provoking ambivalent responses should be a band’s métier, and MGMT should’ve picked up more cues from “Your Life Is a Lie” and the dense, wordless “Astro-Mancy” (again, good luck deciphering those hieroglyphics). “I can hear reflections in the air,” Vanwyngarden chants on “A Good Sadness,” his vocals so wrapped in gauze that they smother his metaphors, too. Two magical mystery tours called “I Love You Too, Death” and “Introspection” suggest a deep acquaintance with the kind of psychedelia that has caused acts from Prince to the Stone Roses to confuse personal with aesthetic liberation.

Still, MGMT’s impressive global following should keep them on the festival circuit for awhile, where the uneven acoustics, heat, and distance between stage and audience actually match their blurred music. And it’s possible a Noah “40” Shebib could still cobble together essential tunes from the rubble of MGMT and confound us again with an ingenuity these guys no longer show. After all, the drum tracks are okay, I guess.