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Review: MGMT Return to Earth on the Easygoing But Frustrating Little Dark Age

Did you know Oracular Spectacular was NME’s album of the year in 2008? Or that it ranked 18th in Rolling Stone’s top 100 albums of the decade, ahead of The White Stripes’ White Blood Cells? It may be easy to forget now, but at the turn of the ’10s, MGMT looked to be on the vanguard, with (say it with me) “Time to Pretend,” “Kids,” and “Electric Feel” acting as populist validations of the wide-eyed, performative naivete of 2000s indie music at-large. Animal Collective and Yeasayer got the critics and heavy trippers, but MGMT had the pop songs.

Still, even as they were popularizing the sound of what Noisey would later call the “Vibe Generation,” along with strategically chosen openers like Tame Impala and the influx of major label imitators like Foster the People and Grouplove (not to mention the backhanded compliment of a Frank Ocean rewrite that ran circles around the original), MGMT had already moved on. They followed up Oracular Spectacular with 2010’s Congratulations, an unfairly maligned prog-psych follow-up that lost fans but made others even more devoted, and 2013’s MGMT, a more fairly maligned and languorous effort. Their later work, while often rewarding in its own knotty ways, built them a reputation as affably aimless retromaniac explorers, with nothing that could quite stand up to their previous festival anthems. The story of MGMT became a familiar one: that of a band retreating from its from success with more purposefully difficult music that was still somewhat lovable if you wanted to put in the effort.

Now, 11 years on from that first album and 13 from those anthems’ first appearance on 2005’s Time to Pretend EP, MGMT are slinking back to the world of popcraft with their new album Little Dark Age, licking their wounds though nonetheless still out in the wilderness. Lead singer Andrew VanWyngarden has noted that his song ideas often have the word “bullshit” attached to their working titles, and unfortunately, it’s hard not to agree with him here. Distinguishable hooks are back, as well as are… themes—gone for the most part is VanWyngarden’s woolgathering in favor of specificity, but a type that’s less welcome than you’d think. On “She Works Out Too Much,” an opener about dating through Tinder, he attempts the self-deprecation and character play of collaborator Ariel Pink, but winds up instead with condescension. Elsewhere, on “Hand It Over,” the band aims for softly mournful political commentary but sound more bored than ever over its loping rhythms and hesitant synth pads; it’s clear MGMT is better at being stoned than anything else.

Little Dark Age is pleasant enough, but it’s hard to look past a glaring dearth of ideas. “Little Dark Age” and “Me and Michael” chug along on synth-funk grooves but never quite pop out of them, while the more pastoral back half sinks under its own torpidity. Rarely, something approximating a pulse emerges: “When You Die” compresses MGMT’s Congratulations-era ability to deconstruct song structures so deftly that at first it scans as folk-pop, and “James” is a wistful ode to the band’s touring guitarist that psychedelicizes gently rather than garishly. They’re small glimpses of a happy medium on an easygoing but frustrating album—gentle reminders of why we cared in the first place.