By MICHAEL HAMAD
12:00 PM EST, December 2, 2013
During a period of relative stability, MGMT has produced its least stable-sounding record so far.
"MGMT," the self-titled new album by the duo of Benjamin Goldwasser and Andrew VanWyngarden (their fourth overall), gathers together 45 minutes of lysergic bluster, arena-rock drums, synths and sirens, fraying interludes and unexpected codas. It's also the band's most confident statement to date, wrapped in an increasingly unhinged sound-world.
"While Ben and I feel more confident and at ease with doing what we want to do and not letting outside influences or expectations get in the way artistically, I think that the new album sounds pretty uncomfortable," said VanWyngarden.
To write and record "MGMT," the two holed up in a Buffalo, N.Y. studio for a half-dozen sessions, surrounded by banks of keyboards and wires. They jammed for hours, without preconceived notions of what they were looking for, cut off from the outside world. Chemicals were ingested. Four measures of groove here, 15 seconds of texture there, a genuine vibe or feeling: signs of a successful session. The lyrics, for the most part, came later (except for "Your Life is a Lie," which emerged fully formed).
"We tried to get into this crazy realm," VanWyngarden said. "We surrounded ourselves in a circle of instruments we had all set up in a room, all plugged into a board. We went in without any sort of goal... We were trying to get to these points that felt that we were coming from another world... It's hard to put it into words without sounding cheeseball."
VanWyngarden cites filmmaker David Lynch, who practices Transcendental Meditation, and the late Lou Reed, who often didn't understand his lyrics until weeks after writing them, as models. "A lot of other artists have worked this way," VanWyngarden said. "We didn't know what we sounded like or where it was coming from. That's the kind of thing that's been taken out of the promotional materials."
Comb through the lyrics to any of "MGMT"'s 10 tracks, and you're bound to find a few head-scratchers. "Must've skipped the ship and joined the team for a ride," VanWyngarden sings on "Alien Days," the unabashedly psychedelic opening number, "A couple hours to learn the controls and commandeer both my eyes." (You'll want to spend some time with this one, he seems to say.) "A Good Sadness," which opens in a swirl of harmonically wandering synths, finds VanWyngarden distilling his thoughts down to a few repeated, disconnected utterances: "No line / Disprove / Mean time / Desperate / Confide / Inrush / Disprove." On "I Love You Too, Death," he recites a series of couplets, over stacked fourths and sevenths, like these two:
Try to memorize your smell
It reminds me of a field
Crickets clearer than a bell
Have all their guts recast in steel
Other than a faithful cover of "Introspection," a 1968 song by the Long Island, N.Y. band Faine Jade, you're unlikely to find much comfort in the music either. Chords spontaneously change stripes, flower-power progressions devolve into coloristic word-paintings; even the gentle, swinging groove of "Plenty of Girls in the Sea," the album's other conventional song, is undermined by what sounds like a police siren. Amid calm seas, there's always disruption.
"I'm happy with the new album," VanWyngarden said. "It was unexpected to me, the music we ended up making."
Not surprisingly, the album's accompanying visuals are pretty damn trippy. A high-budget, glossy video for the song "Cool Song No. 2," directed by Isaiah Seret, stars Boardwalk Empire's Michael Kenneth Williams as The Plant Hunter, a mercenary who infiltrates an illegal drug manufacturing compound to rescue his lover, Tree, a junkie who's slowly mutating into a plant. Seriously.
Like Tree, the band seems to be transforming. Once derided as a mediocre live act, their shows have improved considerably. They've embraced taping at shows, perhaps with an eye toward drawing the jam-band crowd. (VanWyngarden is a huge Phish fan.) Once resistant to oversharing on social media, they've announced an Instagram contest where the winner will bang a giant cowbell onstage during "Your Life is a Lie."
When we spoke, MGMT had just wrapped a European tour, their first since 2010, and VanWyngarden was happy with the reception. "It was a very intense tour in terms of how many shows we played," he said. "It all went really well. People get it in their heads that we are one thing and not another. We definitely have a reputation as a bad live act, so it felt good to play some great shows."
MGMT arrives at the Dome in Wallingford on Dec. 6. The appearance, which falls toward the end of the tour, is a kind of homecoming for VanWyngarden and Goldwasser, who met as freshmen at Wesleyan.
"I saw shows [at the Oakdale] when I was in college," VanWyngarden said. "That's a very special area in the country for me. I'm excited to come back."
MGMT plays Dec. 6, 8 p.m., The Dome at Oakdale, 95 S. Turnpike Road, Wallingford, 203-269-8721.
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