A year ago, a new album from MGMT wouldn’t have been particularly highly anticipated, and it especially wouldn’t have been expected to be any good. When “Little Dark Age,” the lead single from the band’s 2018 album of the same name, was released in October 2017, it seemed as if the band had found a new creative gear. Synth pop with a dash of goth, “Little Dark Age” was a fresh, exciting sound for the 00s indie darlings. MGMT have evolved their sound with each release⸺not always for the better, as their self titled LP was a relatively uninspired, lo-fi psychedelic album. “Congratulations,” the group’s 2010 follow up to “Oracular Spectacular,” saw the band experiment further with psych rock and pop to critical acclaim, but failed to generate enthusiasm with fans of their previous record and its hits such as “Kids” and “Time to Pretend.” Now, no longer haunted by the spectre of their past hits, MGMT are back with a well-executed and catchy synth and psych pop album.
“Little Dark Age” kicks off with the zany, infectious song “She Works Out Too Much.” Cascading synths and the driving bassline make this track exciting and danceable. The main draw, however, are the sarcastic lyrics which describe a failed relationship due to a lack (or excess) of exercise: “The only reason we never worked out was / He didn’t work out enough.” Voiceovers color the song with a variety of workout commands and exercises. In its last third, the song builds triumphantly with a section of saxophones, giving the song a climactic finish. These odd song topics continue with the song “TSLAMP,” or “Time Spent Looking At My Phone.” This track features the widest array of different sounds on the album, with synth passages and classical guitar interrupted by humming vocoder vocals which function more as instruments than as a way to deliver lyrics. “TSLAMP” sees the band musing about phone obsession: “Find me when the lights go down / Signing in and signing out / Gods descend to take me home / Find me staring at my phone.” The album’s lead single remains one of the strongest songs, as its haunted synthpop aesthetic is catchy and fun while remaining spooky. “Little Dark Age” exemplifies the strength of the albums hooks. While the instrumentation and quirky lyrics are certainly a huge draw, the sticky grooves and choruses are what will keep listeners coming back. “When You Die” contrasts its light, groovy instrumentation with aggressive declarations of hatred: “I’m not that nice / I’m mean and I’m evil / Don’t call me twice.” This track benefits from guitar work reminiscent of George Harrison which keeps the song plucky and light while the reverb-drenched vocals tell the listener off.
Unfortunately, the album takes a slight dip in the second half with the songs “James,” “One Thing Left to Try,” and “When You’re Small.” While these songs still have their interesting moments, they aren’t quite as engaging from start to finish as the tracks from the first half. Songs such as “When You’re Small” and “Days That Got Away” are meandering and low-key, relegating them to a pleasant if relatively inoffensive position in the tracklisting. The album closes with the song “Hand it Over,” which sounds as if the band is performing in an underwater dream sequence. While “Hand it Over” may not shake the listener like “She Works Out Too Much” or “Me and Michael,” the choir-like voices in the chorus play nicely off of Andrew VanWyngarden’s vocals in a way which soothingly brings the project to a close.
“Little Dark Age” is a welcome return to form for the indie darlings behind “Electric Feel,” “Kids,” and “Time to Pretend”. While the project lags slightly in its second act, there are plenty of memorable, infectious hooks paired with great synth pop instrumentals. With their most recent release, MGMT have left their self-proclaimed “Little Dark Age” behind.