Now ten years since releasing chart-topping songs including “Time to Pretend” and “Electric Feel,” MGMT, well removed from popular music, emerges from its experimental rabbit hole with a nostalgically vintage sound in Little Dark Age, its fourth studio album.
MGMT, composed of the dynamic indie-rock duo of Andrew VanWyngarden and Ben Goldwasser, rose to fame in 2008 with the tracks “Time to Pretend,” “Kids,” and “Electric Feel,” all of which were satirically composed—“Time to Pretend,” in particular, mocks the band’s potential meteoric rise to fame with them buying islands, having more women than necessary and overdosing just because, for rockstars, its par for the course.
Following Oracular Spectacular, MGMT left the soundscape of popular music and moved to the more fringe indie realm with their sophomore record Congratulations, which was more introspective in nature with a narrative dissecting the pressures and emotions the band faced while ascending to the heights of pop culture. This album was then followed by their self-titled album, composed entirely of unusual and often improvised melodies as the band played around with their sound.
However, with their move to making music in untested waters, both Congratulations and MGMT did not reach the critical acclaim of their debut record. In fact, MGMT experienced a critical descent following their strong debut despite the fact that both Congratulations and MGMT are great albums in their own right, particularly Congratulations, which many critics retrospectively view as the pair’s best record to date. Now, with Little Dark Age, MGMT applies the same awareness they did with Congratulations to the cultural paradigm of what is defined, for lack of a better term, as the Trump Era.
Leading to the release of Little Dark Age were four singles, the first being the title track which rides heavily the gothic aesthetic inherent to the dark ages. As the title track, “Little Dark Age” serves as a thematic guide to the rest of the album, but not necessarily restricted to the sound of the record. While “Little Dark Age” is a haunted synth-pop tune with motifs of fear and uncertainty, the first track on the album, “She Works Out Too Much,” is an ironic homage to ‘80s pop with the feel of Olivia Newton-John if her sound was influenced by psilocybin.
The second single accompanying the album was “When You Die,” a song that’s lyrically aggressive but melodically tender. “When You Die” displays an annexation between themes from Congratulations and the ideas which Little Dark Age attempts to convey all through the guise of ego. While Congratulations felt more personalized in the sense that the album focused more on the struggles of the “artist” (to put it pretentiously), “When You Die” is able to universalize similar themes in a somewhat symbolic way—death, as a great equalizer, serves as an unambiguous messenger of a message regarding the volatility of ego.
The fourth single released was “Me And Michael,” a cover of a song of the same name by True Faith, a rock band from the Philippines. It’s the closest the band will ever get to writing a pop song of the same caliber as their previous chart toppers, and the band is so aware of this that they mock stardom in the process. In the music video, VanWyngarden and Goldwasser are in different parts of the country (as they were before working on Little Dark Age since the band was on hiatus since 2013) and they share the song with each other, both falling in love with the innocent and compassionate sound of the song. VanWyngarden then says “It’s beautiful. We should steal this song” and the music begins. The rest of the video is a rapid dramatization of achieving fame, falling under scrutiny for stealing a song, then landing destitute before apologizing to True Faith for stealing “Michael.” Basically, it’s the themes of “Time to Pretend” rehashed and matured.
Finally, the third single, and the last song on the album, is “Hand It Over,” which is a spacey elegy to MGMT’s stardom. Like “Congratulations,” which comments on the band’s contributions to culture not mattering so long as “the tickets sell,” “Hand It Over” is the band exiting its little dark age by coming to terms with their place in the musical universe. The band’s denouement comes at the hands of record companies not rewarding experimentation but profit instead. However, the general theme of the song is the conflict of authority (a “king”) milking his constituents, who are responsible for his power as they grant it to him.
While it may not be the last record for MGMT, Little Dark Age could serve as a manic finale to the duo’s career together. It is holistic to the motifs the band has played with from day one and is, as such, a climax and resolution to the artistic arc of MGMT. After entering their own dark age following critical panning of their work, the band has created a beacon and encapsulated the inner-most conflicts of the infantile 21st century with Little Dark Age, all while the band grabs hold of the light at the end of their tunnel and resurfaces both anew and accomplished.