On their best songs — “Time to Pretend,” “Kids” and the new “Someone’s Missing” — you don’t know if MGMT are goofing or sincere or both. “I’m cut and I’m weeping like a rubber tree,” sings Andrew VanWyngarden on the new track, which seems to be about death — until the 1:45 mark, when, amid upward-spiraling synths and harp arpeggios, it transforms into what sounds like a Jackson 5 tune. Is it a piss take on existential indie rock? A requiem for Michael? Or an attempt to vanquish grown-up sadness with giddy kiddie rock?
One of MGMT’s great attributes is how — in this Daily Show-fueled, we’ve-seen-it-all-before cultural moment — they keep you guessing. Most rock bands save their coping-with-fame opus for the second or third record. VanWyngarden and partner Ben Goldwasser released it as their first proper LP, 2008’s Oracular Spectacular, on which they sang about cocaine and model wives like two trippin’-balls hippie gangstas. They were kinda joking, kinda not: An indie-rock-style duo with a taste for Bowie glam and druggy synth pop but also for head-colonizing hooks, they signed a major-label deal in 2006. What followed was self-fulfilling prophecy: opening gigs for Radiohead and Paul McCartney, collaborations with the Flaming Lips (Embryonic), some Grammy noms (one win) and, apparently, shitloads of rock-star partying.
With Congratulations, the knowing smartasses of Oracular Spectacular seem confused about what’s next. The result is a hazy, hit-and-miss album that will likely alienate some fans of the debut, but one that also testifies to MGMT’s restlessness as songwriters and human beings. “It’s Working,” a song VanWyngarden describes as about the drug Ecstasy, mixes surf guitars, harpsichord glitter and bong patters with some less-than-ecstatic lyrics: “I see the signs of aging/But if I try to feel at all, I am deceived,” VanWyngarden sings.
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Drugs are a theme here, and so is the pop history MGMT are now a part of. “Song for Dan Treacy” pays tribute to the man who led the Eighties U.K. post-punk experimentalists Television Personalities before becoming a drug casualty. All snappy beats, Munchkin choirs and neon-flashing electronics, it’s funny until you realize the story, about a dude wandering the streets “frozen in time,” is pretty sad.
For the MGMT of Congratulations, stretching out sometimes means losing your way. The 12-minute “Siberian Breaks” is a prog epic with some baked rills on Leonard Cohen existentialism (“Oh, Marianne, pass me the joint”); ditto “Lady Dada’s Nightmare,” a mix of cheesy Sixties-soundtrack moves and bits of slasher-flick screams that could use some “Poker Face” drama.
The set closes with the title track, a spangled folk rocker about the weight of success that rides a bass line recalling the Band’s “The Weight” (get it?). “I save my grace with half-assed guilt,” croons VanWyngarden, interrogating his own skepticism in what seems a sincere attempt to — well, to be sincere, to wrap his head around all that’s happened. With one record, MGMT made it into the pantheon. With Congratulations, they attempt to not just keep it weird — which they’ve done — but to figure out how they can be in it for the long haul. It’s a solid start.