By Michelle Hart, Staff Writer
Ben Goldwasser and Andrew VanWyngarden, the duo behind MGMT have a weird way of congratulating themselves. After garnering both critical acclaim and commercial success, as well as heaps of praise from the likes of Sir Paul McCartney, the twosome return with an album that lies as far left from the center as possible.
"Congratulations," the follow-up to their debut "Oracular Spectacular," is, in every way, the antithesis of that first album. Usually, when a band revamps their sound this drastically—especially when it is a sound that finds them at 18 on Rolling Stone's list of the best albums of the decade—it spells disaster. And while "Congratulations" will leave many fans disappointingly bewildered, you have to respect the band for having the "cajones" to do what they want, even if it is at the behest of fans, critics, and record executives alike.
Perhaps the most jarring difference found on "Congratulations" is the sheer lack of potential singles. Where as the debut produced two or three hits — with two or three more that could have easily been singles — no song on the follow-up immediately jumps out as a hit. Sure, the band's record label released two songs designed as "teasers" for the album; but neither of those songs possessed the same anthemic catchiness of "Time to Pretend" or "Kids." Both "Flash Delirium" and the title track, which were the first tastes listeners got of the album, lack the verse-chorus structure that defines a hit. Seldom will one find an obvious hook on the album. As a result, "Congratulations" becomes much more of a cohesive album, rather than a collection of singles. Frankly, it is a better album for it since MGMT's shtick has always been creating unadulterated songs that convey messages of freedom.
The overall sound of the band has mutated as well. In stark contrast to "Oracular's" Bowie-esque 70's glam-pop, "Congratulations" heavily channels 60s psychedelic folk-rock a la The Zombies or early Kinks. Actually, this sophomore effort finds the band doing exactly what they should be doing: to experiment with different sounds that they may or may not be comfortable with. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. For example, the first half of "Someone's Missing" sees the band dabbling in "shoe gaze," but the latter half erupts into a bright flurry of pop goodness.
Maybe all this is the point of "Congratulations" though; the theme of the album certainly appears to be subverting expectations. Take, for instance, "Brian Eno." The song namedrops a producer and musician known for creating slow, ambient compositions, and yet, "Eno" is one of the faster-paced tracks on the disc.
"Congratulations" will alienate many listeners. In fact, it might not attract new ones either. Yet, the album becomes a powerful artistic statement for this exact reason; not many bands that have experienced the kind of overnight success as they have, possess the sheer audacity to purposefully (and unapologetically) ignore and subvert expectations.