25 July 2010

MGMT's Congratulations: A Review After the Reaction (or A Reaction to the Reaction)



I know it's been a while since this album came out, but I'm still hearing the attempts to dismiss it every day.  In fact last weekend I was at a bar with a group of friends and at this bar they play "Time to Pretend," "Electric Feel," and "Kids" every single night as far as I can tell.  I haven't been to that bar in the last year and not heard all of those songs played in the couple of hours I was there.  All right, that may be an exaggeration; they don't play "Time to Pretend" all that much (probably because it's not as energetic), but the other two: yes, every single time I've been there.  Even last weekend I heard both of those songs and when "Kids" came on, one of my friends said, "I think they should retire this song."  I agreed with him.  When I first saw MGMT at Lollapalooza in the summer of 2008 (which was also the first I'd ever heard of them) those 3 songs definitely stuck out to me.  As a result I listened to that album a ton of times that summer and noticed that not all of the songs were like those 3 songs.  I still liked them, but the appeal of those extremely poppy songs hadn't worn out on me yet.  That however would happen by the end of the year, thanks to, among other things, the bar that plays the songs every night.  Basically, you can only dance to a song so many times, and songs with that sort of appeal in a way detach from the artists themselves.  They dominate, through their mass appeal, the perception of the artists and soon enough everyone expects the same thing from them; the popular songs generalize the artists.  I'm not going to go into a Marxist critique of how the system, including the music industry operates, but am just going to note it in passing.
            Another friend, after that statement was made said, "I think they should retire their new album."  This bothered me, and I made him aware of it.  Before Congratulations came out I made a pre-dismissal of it because I was expecting it to represent only those 3 songs that made them popular.  That's how major label music usually operates nowadays.  Their other slower songs on Oracular Spectacular would probably be overshadowed and eradicated by the music industry because they weren't marketable to hipster dance clubs and they were antithetical to how they became popular in the first place.  But instead of this we got slow songs tinted with remnants of psychedelic rock, experimental art rock, all in the guise of pop music.  When I first heard "Flash Delirium," separate from the entire album, I was confused and pleased at the same time.  I knew that it was something different and that they were intentionally throwing people off guard and making something that made you stop and question just what the fuck was going on.  A few weeks later I was in a car and on the radio the song came on.  The beginning mumbles reminded me of the sinister, back-alley brooding of Jordan Blilie from The Blood Brothers, but it definitely wasn't the Blood Brothers, as I later discovered from the rainbowy pop synths that burst in afterwards.  About the time that I noticed the unusual song structure, I realized what it was, and was happy that it through me off again.  The entire album took me 4 or 5 listens before I could see the beauty and importance in the songs and what they meant to people who actually like MGMT and not just popular music in general.  The fact that this album exists, from a band that had so many expectations and presuppositions is a testament for a groups freedom to do exactly what they want in a world where music is increasingly commodified and meant to fulfill the desires of those who wish to make a quick buck on the spiritual connection people make to music.  The album is slower, more intellectual, more experimental, obscure, etc.  It shows signs of artistic growth and has more genuine characteristics that one can feel in the songs.  In general It's a better album than the last one, mainly, at least from my standpoint, because I'm still listening to it 6 months later and am still not tired of it, unlike the previous album.
Trying to pinpoint what is magical about this album is counterproductive.  It eludes a quick and easy pigeonhole, and those who do dismiss it would probably rather distract themselves with dancing than expand their musical tastes.  This is the kind of pop music we've needed in our generation for a long time: pop music that experiments the way The Beatles did, throwing caution to the wind, pop music that is unafraid of 12 minute long songs like "Siberian Breaks" (my favorite song on the album) which takes you to another world, on a hillside, staring off into the sky with a joint in hand.  The album isn't perfect, but it isn't supposed to be.  I don't like every single song on the album but the ones that I do like, I love.  And the fact that they defied expectations, shed some bandwagon 'fans' in the process, makes the experience of listening to the album that much better and the intentions behind the album that much truer.  It almost reminds me of the abstract obscurity that Talk Talk branched toward on their later albums.  I find myself looking for a metaphor pitting the revolutionary sounds of the 60s against the forces of capitalism:  Art vs The Machine in the realm of popular culture.  That may be taking it a bit too far, as far as its cultural significance is concerned, so I'll just leave it at this: It's a great album if you're willing to open your mind to it.

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