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Album Review: MGMT returns from the rabbit hole with “Little Dark Age”

Andrew VanWyngarden of MGMT performing in 2010. MGMT released their fourth studio album, “Little Dark Age,” on Feb. 9. AURELIEN GUICHARD/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS VIA CC BY 2.0

Psychedelic rock band MGMT has returned to its roots with a synth-pop record, “Little Dark Age,” released on Feb. 9 by Columbia Records. The band, made up of duo Ben Goldwasser and Andrew VanWyngarden, hasn’t tasted pop since its debut album.

MGMT met commercial and critical success with its 2007 album, “Oracular Spectacular,” which spawned cult indie hits “Time to Pretend,” “Electric Feel” and “Kids.” Three years later, the duo took an experimental detour with its sophomore album “Congratulations” (2010) before alienating all but core fans with the obscure “MGMT” in 2013. But now, MGMT has rediscovered the kind of songwriting that fans fell in love with 11 years ago.

The opening track, “She Works Out Too Much,” is a sardonic look at a superficial relationship meeting its demise. Modeled after 80s workout videos, the song starts with a woman, impossible to imagine without a leotard, saying, “Get ready to have some fun!” The song plays with a dialogue between a fitness-obsessed girl and a boyfriend who can’t seem to keep up. Ending abruptly, in true aerobic exercise video fashion, the woman says, “Okay, we’re done.”

The album changes pace with its first single, “Little Dark Age.” The straightforward track details a depressive episode and the inability to escape oneself. Humor, apparently, is a good defense mechanism when you’re in the dark. They sing, “And the engine’s failed again / All limits of disguise / The humor’s not the same / Coming from denial.”

MGMT brings more life into the album with the second single, “When You Die,” another obnoxious take on darkness. The song features a self-loathing narrator joking about the inevitability of death. They sing, “Baby, I’m ready, I’m ready, ready, ready to blow my brains out.” Laughably distressed, they even add, “Go fuck yourself!”

“Me and Michael,” the album’s fourth single, is a jazzy salute to the 80s, marked by dreamy, nostalgic vocals. They sing of blind happiness, evoking a little bit of sadness in listeners: “Binary star sink like the setting sun / Too happy with ourselves to notice when the change had come / So you think the losing side would never break dividing lines / But sanctity wasn’t in doubt.” With the twinkling instrumentals, the sadness is easily palatable.

“TSLAMP,” which is a literal acronym for “time spent looking at my phone” is a snarky critique of modern life like the opener. MGMT ridicules society for wasting life with technology. They sing, “All the memories you’ve shared / Devoured by perverted creatures / Gods descend to take me home / Find me staring at my phone.” People are so screen-obsessed that their electronics can interfere with something as sacred as their relationship with God.

“James,” a tribute to the guitarist in their live band, sounds notably different from the rest of the album, as it’s in a lower octave. They sing, “James / If you need a friend / Come right over / Don’t even knock / And I’ll be home / The door is always open / And we can both say, ‘Who’s laughing now?.'” In an interview with Q magazine, MGMT said they wrote the song for the guitarist after taking a “microdose of acid.” VanWyngarden attributes his unusual vocal range for this track to the fact that they were screaming all day.

The next song, “Days That Got Away,” is a repetitive four minute and 45 second groove. The digital jazz, acid house mix might be the closest MGMT has ever gotten to chillwave.

“One Thing Left to Try” is a surprisingly positive, upbeat song on struggling with suicidal thoughts. Eruptive instrumentals underlay lyrics like, “The only way to get rid of the feeling / You have to draw the line / And remember there’s more than you’re seeing / Decide.”

But what goes up must come down. MGMT follows its ode to surviving with “When You’re Small,” an emotional song on the highs and lows of life. They sing, “When you’re low / You reach a certain point / Where you can’t really see the point.” The feel is similar to “Space Oddity,” David Bowie’s 1969 single on not feeling like you’re meant for life on earth.

The album fades out with its third single, “Hand It Over,” a clear response to Donald Trump’s surprise victory in the 2016 presidential election. They sing, “The joke’s worn thin, the king stepped in / Oh, we’ll see who is who / Look who’s bending over.”

“Apparently,” VanWyngarden told Rolling Stone, “We were more inspired to write pop music after evil took over the world.”

“Little Dark Age” is not MGMT’s magnum opus, but the equal parts dark and cheeky 10-track album is enough to lure lost fans back. For Long Islanders looking to rediscover the electric feel, MGMT is performing at King’s Theatre on March 24 and at Brooklyn Steel on March 25 and March 26.

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