It was the beginning of 2008 when American duo MGMT released their genuinely spectacular debut album: the synthy, trancey, psychedelic, pop-rock declaration of jubilation and tragic fatalism that was Oracular Spectacular.
The UK (and the rest of the world) was drowning in a deep sea trench of recession and dismay at the time. And yet the youth of the country were more alive than ever. The original UK television series of Skins, about a gang of dysfunctional teenagers high on drugs and decadence, had just been released the previous year; and so with it the cultural consent for the actual young to celebrate their wastedness in all its fucked-up glory.
Oracular Spectacular was truly the soundtrack for its generation. And though it is never totally fair to compare any artist’s new work with their epoch-defining debut, in this particular case it is difficult not to: where are all the wasted youth now? Were we really “fated to pretend”?
MGMT’s fourth album Little Dark Age is somewhat a return to the pop-ish delight that seeped through their first release and into the hearts and minds of that 2007/2008 recession generation. In fact, out of all of their subsequent music, this collection is the closest to a conscious effort to harken back to that first starry-eyed invitation for deliration.
In a recent Rolling Stone interview the duo explained that after finding their initial success, they had gotten used to working together via e-mail, living at separate ends of the United States; but Little Dark Age was constructed in the same room – like in the good old days of the noughties when the two unknowingly wrote in their dorm rooms what would become their greatest hits – hence the present resemblance to older material.
And though they almost succeed in redefining themselves, that is also the problem: almost. The lyrics are clever, funny, highly relevant to our technologically omnipotent times. The music is generally catchy, enjoyable. But, altogether it does not quite attain the addictive transcendence of the beautifully saccharine and fatefully dark Oracular Spectacular.
There is some guilt attached in having to relay this, with the band in the aforementioned interview bemoaning the fact that there is never an article about them that does not mention the first album or “those three songs” (Time to Pretend, Kids, Electric Feel). And especially so, because on its own merit, Little Dark Age would probably be judged to be of a higher standard.
But, while some of it meanders along, and it may not reach the exaltation of “the first album”, there is solace to be found in its maturity, its originality, and its sometimes touching moments, especially towards the end. In the profundity of the last two songs, a melancholy sets in as you remember the sweetness of youth; the realness of age and growing up illuminates the music, like the first light that peers through the curtains towards the end of the after-party… signalling that it’s all almost over.