The cover of Congratulations, MGMT's sophomore album (out April 13), depicts a two-headed cartoon cat on a surfboard -- one head looking forward, the other looking back -- on the verge of being eaten by the wave it's surfing. And that pretty much sums it up.
Like the cover, the album itself is a piece of psychedelia, half-teasing, half-earnest, and utterly trippy. It begins with "It's Working," a piece of up-tempo surf-rock, with the chanting refrain, "It's working in your blood." The song is hyperactive -- it bounces along, building to a crescendo, stops dead and crashes down, before picking up again at an even more frenzied pace. "It's Working" sets a tone for the rest of the album, a schizophrenic nine-song joy-ride, among which listeners will find the raucous Bowie-Beatles blend "Flash Delirium," twelve space-and-time-sprawling minutes called "Siberian Breaks," an instrumental ("Lady Dada's Nightmare") and the gorgeous title track.
Since it leaked a few weeks ago, the majority of what has been said about the album is about what it is not -- quite simply, another Oracular Spectacular, the 2007 album that made the band famous with catchy hits like "Kids" and "Time to Pretend."
Critics, egged on in part by comments made by the Brooklyn-based duo (Ben Goldwasser and Andrew VanWyngarden), have fretted over the commercial viability of the album. Peter Kember, who helped produced it, has said, "Nobody really knows how the album is going to be received." The band's co-manager Mark Kates has voiced a similar sentiment, "Every indication we're getting is that people really want it... that doesn't mean they're going to like it, or that they're going to buy it, or that it will sell more or less than the last record."
VanWyngarden has said of Congratulations, "The people responsible for making money hoped that we'd record another 'Time to Pretend'...but everyone close to us knew we weren't going to do that." The video for "Flash Delirium" eludes to a struggle over creative control: half-way through, Ben rips a bandage from his throat, revealing a gaping hole that appears to sing for a moment, before two suits rush forward to wrestle a wriggling eel from the wound. The eel is taken and forcibly deposited in a giant contraption that appears to have some transformative capacity... I'm not making this up! See for yourself...
It's true, Congratulations is different than Oracular. But that is what is good about it. At this point, most of us have heard "Kids" so many times -- in heavy radio-rotation, on Gossip Girl, in ads for French President Nicolas Sarkozy's UMP party -- that the high-pitched opening bars, and overlaid children's squeals, have become grating. That includes MGMT themselves, "If we tried to re-create our last album and someone didn't like it, I think it would have been really difficult to look them in the eye and tell them we really believed in the album... But now, if someone tells us that it sucks, we don't give a shit." Goldwasser said in an interview
Congratulations doesn't suck -- it is affecting and intricate, and sometimes subtle, and sometimes dense, almost inscrutable, and a pleasure all the way through, over and over again. Whether the album proves to be a commercial success has yet to be seen, but it doesn't seem as though that is even the goal this time around.
The success that MGMT mocked in "Time to Pretend" (singing, "Lets make some music, make some money, find some models for wives.") is treated as a double-edged sword on Congratulations -- it is both the wave they are riding, and the one that threatens to consume them. Nowhere is this ambivalence more apparent than on the final and title track of the album, on which VanWyngarden sings, "I've got someone to make reports/ That tell me how my money's spent/ To book my stays and draw my blinds/ So I can't see what's really there/ And all I need's a great big congratulations."
Congratulations drops April 13, 2010 until then you can hear it streaming on their website, WHOISMGMT.com. MGMT play the Fillmore in San Francisco April 12 and 13. For tickets and information visit LiveNation.com or call (415) 346-6000.