Album Review: MGMT – Little Dark Age

Words by Isabel Sanchez

MGMT recently told Rolling Stone that “there’s no article or video or anything about us that doesn’t mention the first album and those three songs.” If you know MGMT at all then you know exactly which album and songs they’re talking about. So, now, we’re giving duo Ben Goldwasser and Andrew VanWyngarden’s new album, Little Dark Age, a chance to be heard on its own without bringing up the past – a chance for the duo to be seen as they are today without defining them by their old achievements.

MGMT- Little Dark Age artwork

After a few years of mystifying silence, MGMT have reemerged with their much anticipated fourth studio album almost five years since their last. The album clearly demonstrates a more focused and structured approach to songwriting, facilitated by the band’s collaboration with Patrick Wimberly (Chairlift) and Dave Fiedmann (producer of Tame Impala and Spoon), while also featuring Connan Mockasin and Ariel Pink. We’ve already heard their previously released singles, ‘Little Dark Age’, ‘When You Die’ and ‘Hand it Over’, which, along with the rest of the upcoming album are a moving reflection of our times that hit close to home for many. MGMT are no strangers to existential crises – they must have had about ten in the making of this album. The songs speak of anxiety, dismay, alienation, paranoia and death but also of liberation, friendship and the acceptance of the freak inside you. The band told Entertainment Weekly that they were “going for everything happening at once; chaotic, overwhelming, anxious-feeling music,” thus the music addresses the tense political world of today with the unexpected election of Donald Trump as its inevitable source of inspiration.

The band also told Entertainment Weekly that they were inspired by the way in which the UK punk scene sung about how horrible and dark life in England was, whilst retaining a human element and some sense of hope through the use of black humour. The title of the album itself is a play on the dark times of today because, the way they see it, the dark age we’re living in isn’t permanent, it’s little and transitory. MGMT explain in their behind-the-scenes video that they got the inspiration for the title track the day Trump won the election, that it filled them with a strange sort of anxious adrenaline and that they started recording the next day. The resulting song is a beautifully eerie, contemplative and curious exploration of the angst that arises when what you thought was impossible becomes reality. ‘Little Dark Age’, reminiscent of Duran Duran’s ‘The Chauffer’, is like walking through a hauntingly strange dream, splendidly illustrated in its accompanying video.

The anxiety and paranoia surrounding the digital and social media revolution of recent years is also a prominent theme of the album. ‘She Works Out Too Much’ and ‘TSLAMP’ (Time Spent Looking At My Phone) are evocative of ‘Video Killed the Radio Star’ in the way in which they express a message of unease towards technology, ironically hidden under seemingly care-free, poppy and upbeat music. Both songs speak about how social media and smartphones have become an inescapable presence in our lives, unconscious addictions that have restrained and governed our social interactions.

However, the wonderful thing about MGMT is that they like to be the medium through which you are the one imagining. While a few of the lyrics are explicitly about certain issues, the band generally don’t force you to take any particular political or ideological stance, often remaining humorous and letting you decide how you feel. The only thing they actively do encourage is the embrace and liberation of the freak inside you. “We wanted to make music for the freaks out there,” Goldwasser tells Entertainment Weekly. Little Dark Age is all about recognising the feeling of being different and about letting go of the things that hold you back. It’s about laughing at those who remain stuck in the tyranny of social norms and expectations and those who will never truly be themselves. This is the message expressed in ‘When You Die’, a liberating psychedelic trip, with the unmistakable contribution of Mockasin and Pink. Similarly, the songs ‘James’ and ‘Me and Michael’ are touching odes to friendships where Goldwasser and VanWyngarden reassure (friends and probably fans as well) that in a world where it seems like you don’t belong, there will always be like-minded people to carry you on your journey.

MGMT undoubtedly remained true to themselves in the making of this album. They craft a perfect fusion of their signature esoteric psychedelia and experimentalism with an increasingly pop and approachable sound that promises to evolve and mature in their future work. ‘Days That Got Away’ is arguably the epitome of the album – a musical poem, with a deep, seductive and evolving soundscape. It encompasses all the emotions addressed in the album: the dark paranoia, the nostalgia and desire for the days you never got to experience and, most of all, the desire to be free.

The album ends with ‘Hand it Over’, a melancholy and dreamy track whose uplifting harmonies express the optimism the band feels about the future, heralding the day when the evil that currently rules hands over and relinquishes their power. Despite everything, I still feel MGMT have more to say, more questions to ask and boxes to open and they definitely now have the tools to do so. If we must mention Oracular Spectacular, all there really is to say is that they have now evolved into more mature musicians with different aims. It is evident that they are not concerned with what other people think of them or with being on the charts, otherwise they’d be writing pop hits, which we all know they’re perfectly capable of.