"We are trying to process the feeling of being confused and overwhelmed," says MGMT's Andrew VanWyngarden. "And not overwhelmed by band experiences, but by life experiences. The themes of the [new] songs get into existential problems and bigger issues that affect everyone, and not just us."
As these themes suggest, VanWyngarden is just like you and me. In fact, he spent some of his formative years growing up in Wilkinsburg, went to McEwen Elementary (a now-defunct school in Shadyside), and even almost lost his prized Pirates hat when it slipped out of his hand and into centerfield during an early-'90s Pirates game.
"I had to convince the usher it was mine instead of Andy Van Slyke's," he says. "But I got it back."
Unlike you and me, VanWyngarden is the frontman of a popular, successful band — making the existential musings intriguing, a thematic departure from the humor-and-irony-driven ascent of the band's initial surge to stardom.
On MGMT's new self-titled full-length, gone are the days of sunnier psychedelic dance pop, that earlier, broadly popular era punctuated by ironic and humorous gold singles "Time to Pretend" and "Electric Feel," and the platinum, world-breaking ode to the comforting longings of nostalgia, "Kids." Founding members VanWyngarden and Benjamin Goldwasser have chosen to descend toward creating structure-defying, gauzily-produced and heavily layered songs with existential themes: the end of civilization ("Mystery Disease"), alien invasion ("Alien Days"), self-examination ("Your Life Is a Lie", "Introspection"). There is an integrity behind this inward turn and continued experimentation: Instead of shamelessly attempting to re-create the past's ironic success, MGMT chose to get serious.
In the early 2000s, Van Wyngarden and Goldwasser were slumming in the dorms of Wesleyan University, making funny sounds with old synthesizers, hosting "concerts" consisting of friends sitting in a circle and being weird. An EP of jokey pop songs released on the small indie Cantora Records seemed to serve as the peak for another obscure college act only their friends would remember. But in fact — that EP found its way to the ears of Columbia Records, who declared the group worthy of a record deal. Next came collaborating with star producer Dave Fridmann and recording an album, Oracular Spectacular, that, on the strength of its ironic and humorous songs sold 900,000 copies in an era where albums don't sell 900,000 copies.
The band's first hit single, "Time to Pretend," comically trumpets: "Let's make some music, make some money, find some models for wives." The ultimate irony is how prescient the song turned out to be. But success was overwhelming.
MGMT's second album, 2010's Congratulations, was a personal reaction to being thrust into stardom. Humor and irony are replaced by an intimate sensitivity. Abandoning the immediate, hook-heavy pop of the first album for complex and ambitious multi-part suites, these songs welcomed being spun on a turntable in some darkened basement, examined seriously.
Debuting strongly at No. 2 on the Billboard top 200, Congratulations ended up selling a little over 200,000 copies — respectable, but a far cry from the Oracular Spectacular rocket ship. Quick success had created the difficult second album; would this be a momentary diversion before the predictable, return-to-their-popular-roots third act?
Quite the contrary, this third album shows Congratulations was a spot on the map towards MGMT's ultimate destination. Bridges and codas appear unpredictably out of an ether of swelling instruments; a darker, psychedelic pop supports more mature lyrical themes. This approach is divisive, adulated by some and discomfiting to others, who, VanWyngarden believes, do not wish to examine the issues these songs confront.
"The lyricism is about why there is a dissonance of knowing you should be somewhere a little further along, and knowing that you're not and trying to figure out what's keeping you from getting there," VanWyngarden says. "I think there's a universal human feeling of not living up to our full potential."
We like to think of our celebrities as transcending existential dilemmas — this idea is at the core of the great American desire to be famous. But, when a successful band admits to being tormented by the unanswerable questions that affect us all, the illusion of celebrity is shattered. This is challenging to an audience, and negative reactions are inevitable. This can also be rewarding, and the third album is: Initial inscrutability gives way to illumination.
Reacting to success will be the overarching storyline in MGMT's career. When a debut album explodes, most bands pursue duplication — to try to make that same album again and again. Bands who completely diverge from a successful formula confound their initial supporters, open themselves to fail at their new experiments, and cast a shadow of doubt over the veracity of that initial success. But this approach also liberates and dignifies. Let's appreciate the poignant idealism behind the struggle with being identified that drives a band towards experimentation; most importantly, let's appreciate a band for whom success may not be and never was the ultimate goal.
This time around, the second single, "Your Life Is a Lie," is the band's ironic song — appearing on an album where the band's primary objective is to tell its fans the honest truth.