*Not every MGMT song, actually. I’ve ranked songs from the three LPs — Oracular Spectacular (2007), Congratulations (2010), and MGMT (2013) — along with the “Metanoia” single.
- “Introspection,” MGMT
What is one to make of the sole cover song appearing in MGMT’s discography? It’s an old problem in the art-rock tradition, in which albums are supposed to be statements, not songbooks. But if you’ve decided the world can do without one more new composition and you’re trawling the ASCAP ocean, you’d be advised to make a thoughtful, obscure selection, as MGMT have done here.
Faine Jade’s “Introspection” (1968) is not so much transformed as decorated, festooned with the noisy lanterns so characteristic of the third album. The ornaments crowd in more with each verse/chorus, till the final run through the chorus topped with a howling flute part reaches a spine-tingling climax. This is, without a doubt, the best MGMT song not written by MGMT.
- “Cool Song No. 2,” MGMT
The song “Brian Eno” may have appeared on the previous album, but it’s this worldbeat-type number that most resembles the English artist’s approach to songcraft and even vocal delivery circa Another Green World.
The earliest indication that album three will take a minimalist approach, the texture and structure are radically pared down in comparison with anything MGMT has offered previously — yet the song presents enough wrinkles in its fabric to captivate and surprise. The melody, sounding at first like a snatch of mindless humming on a jungle trek, keeps getting tangled in different chord treatments as the song progresses. Then there’s an outright disruption or two, most notably the vertigo-inducing chasm that opens up after the lyric “Would you feel better holding the stars up?”
- “Congratulations,” Congratulations
Awaking from “Lady Dada’s Nightmare,” our protagonist assesses reality once again — and finds it mundane and disappointing. “Congratulations” is the album’s final, drawn-out sigh, the moment of resigning to one’s state of affairs. Appropriately, MGMT greets the occasion with a simple, unfussy melody, understated and lovely, one of MGMT’s few that could have sprung from a pop album 50 years ago.
Then there are the lyrics, the band’s most accomplished and natural-sounding, with virtually no resistance between the lyric and melodic line, sprinkled with tough witticisms (“You start with a simple stock of all the waste / And salt to taste”).
Unfortunately, the song ends with the worst sound ever: that of the album Congratulations being over.
- “Time to Pretend,” Oracular Spectacular
To make explicit reference to the number hanging just overhead, yes, it’s true: I vastly prefer “Time to Pretend” to the other mega-hit singles from Oracular Spectacular, and if I had to give two reasons why, I would say “music” and “lyrics.” The signature interlocking synth lines are an enviable pop discovery, like finding a finding a crate of fireworks — readily combustible and offering giddy (if not gaudy) thrills. The humid electronic texture overwhelms with its hugeness and its detail.
But the lyrics reveal that, for young MGMT, a certain defensive irony was really the most direct route to pathos. For all the rock star excess joked about in the first verse, much of the second deals in gauzy commonplace memories, vast worlds that are distant and irrecoverable, as alien and sad as the live-fast-die-young pop stars with their islands, cocaine, and cars. “Time to Pretend,” at the head of the first album, begins framing the question a later song will articulate: when to catch a feeling and when to let it go.
- “Siberian Breaks,” Congratulations
Unsurprisingly, it was the 12-minute track, more than any other on Congratulations, that sent music critics of delicate constitution running for the hills in terror. A Paste reviewer gave the most panicked assessment of an album I’ve ever read, remarking: “MGMT is like some nightmarish amalgam of […] bottom-barrel ideas set to wanky synths, sometimes for up to 12 minutes (!!!) at a time.” Man, those three exclamation points always get a chuckle out of me.
Within those 12 minutes, you and I hear not “wankery,” but seven discrete sections of pop music, proceeding briskly one to the next. The movement from the first into the second is seamless, even with a neat time signature change, and while other sections enter more disruptively each magnificently recolors its surroundings. We hear VanWyngarden’s laconic “Oh Marianne, pass me the joint” against a tumbling rhythmic texture, brief flashes of ambient echo and musique concrète, a moment of pastoral baroque pop — all of it tuneful, honest, and supporting a coherent whole.
Actually, if you’re puritanically suspicious of music’s deepest joys, the track’s final construction, glittering synth citadel, is a bit wanky. Don’t listen too often, you’ll go blind.
- “I Love You Too, Death,” MGMT
We all know what Death looks like: he’s the tall, hooded fellow with the reaper. But what does Death, or Death’s approach, sound like? In MGMT’s sonic rendering, Death is a cyclical electronic buzz, gentle wind chimes, a flute warbling somewhere beyond melody, the clang of tin cans, a low droning B, all ringing out together… all that before VanWyngarden gets to the mic at 0:58 and in a low breathy register intones, “Who is much more than a friend / But never by my side?” The vision, or perhaps incantation or bittersweet reminiscence, is delivered as Sprechstimme in a vocal persona somewhere between the Oracle of Delphi and a cartoon mouse. “I Love You Too, Death” takes the form of fully hybridized musical poetry and painstakingly earns its title: no one listening would mistake the occasional flash of whimsy for a snigger, or discern anything less than deadly serious intent.
More than any other, the third album is a laboratory for full-bore experimentation. This is the experiment that sounds most like a breakthrough, suggesting the shape of MGMT to come.
- “Someone’s Missing,” Congratulations
A brief two and a half minutes, this track is like a sonic postcard from altered states. What’s most remarkable is MGMT’s ability to conjure two such states within such a short timeframe: we’re in muted, overcast, gently pulsing environs for the first minute-thirty; then set and setting morph, the scenery dissolves and we’re splashing in clear crystal sunlight by the coda.
I’ll be appropriately succinct: Suspended in the manic parade of the album’s first four songs, this is the deepest, most focused moment on Congratulations. I only wish it lasted longer.
- “Of Moons, Birds & Monsters,” Oracular Spectacular
One of the great strengths of MGMT circa Oracular is their ability to give creative vitality to old generic forms. “Of Moons, Birds & Monsters” leads with amiable folk rock, opening into limber three-part harmony, CSN by way of Fleet Foxes. Sweet and sincere, it’s arguably one of MGMT’s more pedestrian creations until the song veers left about two minutes in.
“To catch a monster / We make a movie” — the song hurriedly rearranges itself around a chromatic ascent, synth and guitar counterpoint rushing to move the set into place. By “Cut and cut its brains out!” the rhythmic texture, already somewhat aroused, begins to sound bloodthirsty. We hear the last heaving lyric (“Communication / It’s easy as the ocean”) and are left on the dark seas of a wide-open, seething outro, MGMT’s first of several. Along with sibling track “The Handshake,” “Of Moons, Birds & Monsters” is an early signpost indicating MGMT’s future directions.
- “The Handshake,” Oracular Spectacular
Fitful and unsettled for the first minute or so, “The Handshake” seemingly burns through a few ideas in different keys rather quickly, none of them taking hold. As in the preceding track “Of Moons, Birds & Monsters,” however, there’s a turnaround, and the scenery changes dramatically. At 1:15, it’s practically a new song, in spectral B major, sounding like a missing section from “I Am the Walrus.” At the vanguard is an uncanny vocal melody, which is allowed to dictate an equally strange chord progression to hypnotic effect. The lyrics follow the melody’s warp to paranoid conjecture: “Under your black eyes, honey, right beneath your nose”….
The 2:07-2:20 passage is one of MGMT’s greatest accomplishments in tension and release. The dominant F-sharp chord, sustained over a four-bar crescendo sprouting pizzicato strings and seismic bass, actually lifts itself a half step to G, fortississimo, two VanWyngardens harmonizing in thirds: “Mm, you convince yourself that you want it but you don’t know.” It’s one of the discarded melodies from earlier (and, it turns out, quite a good one)! Daybreak D major, if only for a moment — as we’re shortly dropped in the song’s hammer-on-anvil coda, a vicious stomp in B minor: “We’ve got the handshake under our tongue.” Whatever it is they’ve got under their tongue here, it seems to have obliterated most visible boundaries in MGMT’s songwriting range and ability.
- “Metanoia” (single, 2008)
Behold the great Gordian knot of MGMT songs. The first section proceeds like a cycle of unsolvable riddles, melody lines tripping and falling through trap-door modulations before finding themselves back where they started. Ninety seconds later, the song pivots dramatically, VanWyngarden begins pleading with the “Mystic Referee,” and MGMT’s first full-fledged prog-rock suite is underway.
In the space of nearly 14 minutes, “Metanoia” progresses through seven major sections, each with its own jolting surprises, banana peels on the harmonic floorboards. The middle section, eerie and desolate, presents a second, unique uroboros-like cycle — before resolving into an instrumental reprise of the first section to cathartic effect, and stop me before I describe this thing to death.
Years later, it still seems extraordinary that this song exists at all, this hubristic dive off the cliffside. There’s no precedent on Oracular, and none of the songs on the following Congratulations are quite so audacious. “Siberian Breaks,” their other lengthy opus, shows more polish but less spark. While MGMT’s sophistication would continue to grow, this is the last artistically naïve MGMT song, a singular relic to be cherished forever.
- “Brian Eno,” Congratulations
What happens at 2:25 in “Brian Eno” may be the most piercingly joyous revelation on an album replete with head-spinning epiphanies. A tense G minor chord is held, squeezed, the beat pogos with punk abandon, and the charge releases at not the expected D minor resolution but — flip! — glorious D major. Brian Eno, dark magus, might just save the world. But wait, there’s a catch: we who bear witness, like Salieri, are cursed to know the full extent of our mediocrity. We’re always one step behind him: he’s Brian Eno.
The song is built around a single, driving conceit, most aptly described by VanWyngarden himself: “It’s kind of a vampire-punk-rock song about finding Brian Eno in like a cathedral in Transylvania. He’s like a dark wizard.” And then, equally revealing: “We originally asked him to produce the track, but he hadn’t heard of us.” The tension (or lack thereof) between the enigmatic Brian Eno of fantasy and the enigmatic Brian Eno of MGMT’s lived experience is the very spark of life animating this Frankenstein’s monster of a track.
- “It’s Working,” Congratulations
Everyone knows that by “It’s working” they mean the Ecstasy, but look how deftly every musical gesture supports the “text,” such as it is: the percussive stammer right before “Light confuses,” or the dazed synth echo following “My heart is racing.” Structurally, the song comprises two sections, more or less independent but fused (unlike in “Metanoia” or “Siberian Breaks”) so that the line between them is imperceptible, and the song seems to draw on the same thought-stream throughout.
While Oracular Spectacular’s tracks occasionally resemble essays in a given genre — stopovers at “EDM” or “folk rock” — Congratulations breaks down generic influences into a molten mass of pure MGMT, as “It’s Working” immediately demonstrates. There’s more than a whiff of surf rock in the opening guitar climb, for instance. For me, the baroque might make the strongest impression: veering harpsichord runs provide scaffolding for the first half, and the second is arranged as a broad and suitably grand chorale, recursive yet seeming to spiral skyward.
- “Flash Delirium,” Congratulations
MGMT’s most theatrical song this side of “Metanoia” opens with a faint murmur and understated lyrics, only to give way 20 seconds later to a brash synth swell, four-on-the-floor rhythm, and sudden, even violent, cadence. There’s a dark heart to “Flash Delirium,” a sense that all structures, no matter how forcefully they assert themselves, are destined to fail. Each “Flaaaash” in the four-square, almost military chorus comes packaged in a different destabilizing chord, all vying for dominance. (And in case you weren’t following all this, the band slips in a few German lyrics to drive the message home.)
It’s also (somehow) the danciest MGMT track post-“Kids,” and the lyrical-musical subject seems to be the artistic crossroads at which the duo found themselves circa 2008-09: whether to deliver more club anthems to the neon-clad hordes or pursue their geekier interests in psych-pop alchemy. Obviously, they chose the latter, but not always at the expense of the former, as “Flash Delirium” demonstrates. Whether the ravers saw it that way is another matter, but it’s easy to spot among the song’s several moving pieces the anthemic progression that the masses missed. (Sing it with me: “Even if this hall collapses / I can stand by my pillar of hope it’s just / A case of flash delirium.”)
Inevitably, the hall does collapse, and the song ends in blitzkrieg, as the coda co-opts an earlier bridge progression, pushes the tempo, and leaves behind a smoldering silence.
- “Song for Dan Treacy,” Congratulations
The precise execution and intricate design of “Song for Dan Treacy” allow this barely-four-minute micro-epic to stand apart from anything else MGMT has attempted. Devilishly ingenious, this musician’s character study creates worlds in the narrowest of temporal spaces. Fittingly, it all happens at breakneck pace (you can hear VanWyngarden tripping over consonants at times). The song employs lyrical (and harmonic) enjambment between sections, moving so swiftly there are periodic lexical dead spots filled with “whoa-oh-oh-oh”s that detract not a whit.
A teeth-clenching A section reminiscent of Barrett-era Floyd gives way to a rich, wistful B section — pure pangs of that melancholy temperament so abundant on Congratulations (as opposed to the sanguine Oracular or the phlegmatic MGMT) with lyrics to match: “To know when your time’s up / You flip the glass and watch the hours quickening….” Melancholy notwithstanding, the song’s final resolution is a very sunny one, a passage of obvious beauty in an album where beauty more often appears in strange getup.
The unmitigated weirdness of “It’s Working” and especially “Dan Treacy” to open the second album was doubtless, for many, too much to stomach; it might even be the watershed moment that turned off scores of admirers but minted new hardcore fans. That’s all well and good. For many of us, the four-song stretch from “It’s Working” to “Flash Delirium” is likely the apex of MGMT’s output to date.
- “Alien Days,” MGMT
“Alien Days,” VanWyngarden told Rolling Stone before the album’s release, is “about that feeling when a parasitic alien is in your head, controlling things.” And already our straw-man MGMT detractor (Austin L. Ray?) is beginning to sweat if not tear at his hair in anguish. Who the fuck are these guys?!!
Well, VanWyngarden did say “feeling,” and no, the song’s not about literal aliens, you unimaginative twit. The subject of “Alien Days” is nothing less than what it’s like to be alive. It’s about the content and texture of experience being so perpetually strange that we perceive it as though we were alien invaders experimenting — deliriously, disastrously — with human consciousness.
This literal and metaphorical conceit informs the song’s slowly evolving texture. The track opens with a delicate synth-string hum, wings beating, a faerie presence palpable. The first voice we hear is a young boy’s, only later joined and then superseded by VanWyngarden’s, a transition that ignites the song’s dualism. (But which voice represents the alien parasite and which the human host?) The texture solidifies and becomes more ungainly as our alien acclimates to its earthly cognition.
As is so often the case with MGMT, it’s the disruptive emergence of a B section (in a distant key) that heralds the most poignant songwriting: a striking, wandering melody leading a piquant progression, altogether a thing of rare beauty. The second appearance of this B section manages to be even more revelatory, another feat of tension and release, testament to the band’s unfaltering compositional instinct.
Despite sharing some of Congratulations’s prog leanings, it’s clear that this song belongs on the coolly pensive third album, inaugurating a cycle of nearly unbroken reverie. It also stands apart from the rest of MGMT and every other track the band has created. In the song’s spacey jangle is a fully realized world that, once apprehended, never really leaves you.