Of all the little quirks MGMT has exhibited in their music over the course of their young career, perhaps dark, comedic hubris is the most intriguing. One couldn’t help but be amused at the tragic, skewered irony of the parodic “Time to Pretend,” a half-joking paean to the fantasy of a self-destructive celebrity life. Singing dreamily of choking on one’s own vomit lent their debut, Oracular Spectacular, a ludicrous, tongue-in-cheek charm that, coupled with the foot-thumping, chunky catchiness of “Kids” and “Electric Feel,” established MGMT as master purveyors of thick, retro synth-pop with a brain.
The Brooklyn duo, now a quintet, follows that highly lauded splash with Congratulations, whose farcical title and outlandish cover seemed to assure a continuation—and perhaps even an evolution—of that promising sound. Unfortunately, there is little in the way of either: The album is a mildly interesting listen, but proves to be nothing less than a regression into ennui-drenched acid folk mimicry. In other words, MGMT sounds positively bored.
From the outset, it’s clear that Congratulations is a deliberate effort on the part of its satirically minded makers to undo the established framework created by Oracular, defy expectations, and playfully consternate both critics and fans alike. But in striving rather openly to set their sophomore effort apart from what they view as the critically acclaimed trappings of their debut, MGMT offers what is, essentially, an album of B-sides—a few bright spots strung together with half-baked concepts and monotony, in need of a lot less knob-tweaking and a whole lot more rewrites. It’s painfully apparent that Congratulations isn’t so much about moving forward musically as it is about consciously constructing the radical converse of Oracular, and as a result, it often comes across as a rushed, desperate retreat into non-accessibility, diversionary noise, and lack of vision masquerading as irreverence. One time too many the album gets lost in Oracular‘s shadow by way of its laborious efforts to be a stark departure.
To add to that irony, it becomes increasingly obvious as Congratulations progresses that its songs—essentially flippant odes to ‘60s psychedelic folk bands like the Association—were better executed on its predecessor, and more specifically on “Of Moons, Birds & Monsters,” which handled the drugged-out imagery and spacey jam sounds with infinitely more swagger, charm, and melodic skill. Indeed, the only track that truly captures the intended spirit of Congratulations is “Someone’s Missing,” which deftly weaves from acid-dropping doom to unbridled exuberance without feeling either rushed or aimless. The rest of the album’s songs aren’t so fortunate: Most are uneventful plateaus of retrograde-filtered sounds and wandering trippiness that eschew melody for an amorphous, cloudy lethargy. With pointless, flittering pieces such as “Lady Dada’s Nightmare” and “Song for Dan Treacy,” Congratulations essentially becomes a giant, sticky Jell-O mold of lo-fi tinkering, a formless triumph of cold, hard studio dabbling over organic inspiration.