Second impressions and MGMT’s Congratulations

First date. First impression. First move.

Firsts matter. Every experience we choose means turning down the opportunity to do something else, so making snap judgments is sometimes the only way to get by. Our public selves are designed to be prepared for firsts: polished and slightly performed, calculated and controlled for when the right opportunity to “put our best face forward” arrives.

Dating, of course, is an entire exercise in firsts, where the tricky part is leaving an impression that gives just the right amount away: a tease that rings with truth but which inspires as much curiosity as passion. In fact, a first experience that gets the emotions soaring is actually a bit dangerous: how are you supposed to know if what you’re caught up in is actually real, if it truly matches what you’re really looking for? Do you even really know what you’re looking for?

Moreover – what if that first impression is the best you’re going to get?

MGMT wrote “Time to Pretend” and “Kids” in their senior year of university. The songs bookended their first independently-released EP in 2005. They were re-recorded when the band signed to Columbia Records. They were released as singles in 2008 and 2009 respectively and helped Oracular Spectacular sell almost 600,000 albums. It’s fair to say that the vast majority of people who’ve listened to MGMT came to the band through those two songs.

I sure did. In mid-2008 I finally got around to “Time to Pretend” and, after struggling with whether or not its ‘dealing with fame’ lyrics were ironic (they are), quickly fell head-over-heels for its glorious synth pop. Though the full album contained a minor gem or two beyond that, “Kids” was the only song to leave almost as strong an impression; it still never ceases to inspire a singalong in good company. It was interesting, too, to see just how long a shelf-life they had: I knew people who were just discovering them last year.

Now, half a decade after those songs first appeared, MGMT finally gets to make their second impression with entirely-new material. And to give credit to the duo, they’ve done all they can to manage expectations: They’ve said in nearly every interview that there’s no “Time to Pretend” or “Kids” on Congratulations, and fair enough. Who am I to begrudge a band for wanting to stretch themselves rather than rest on their laurels?

And there’s certainly ambition on Congratulations. From the multipart mess of the 12-minute “Siberian Breaks,” to the creepy “Lady Dada’s Nightmare,” the record’s psychedelic sounds mash into each other, alternating between claustrophobia and wide open spaces depending on the track. The closest thing to a single, “Flash Delirium,” is a scattershot construction of hooks that never bores because it never stays in the same place. No song feels compromised or re-considered to meet an expectation of commercial success.

But it’s also not really THAT big a departure if you managed to get further into their debut than the singles. Basically, Congratulations is filled with songs that sound like weirder, more interesting versions of the album tracks from Oracular Spectacular – songs like “Weekend Wars” and “4th Dimensional Transition.” And just like those songs, Congratulations’ material isn’t half bad. But is that really what anyone wants from MGMT?

Put another way: did anyone REALLY fall in love with “Weekend Wars”?

Of course not. Oracular Spectacular was an adequate psychedelic pop record with two amazing, life-changing, tell-all-your-friends synth-pop singles. Congratulations is a weirder adequate psychedelic pop record without those singles. A person who’d come to Congratulations first might find it intriguing, maybe even worthwhile, but there’s nothing here to truly distinguish the band from others playing in a similar neo-psych sandbox. It’s not amazing. It’s not life-changing. It’s not worth telling all your friends.

And that’s the problem with where MGMT are at right now. They’re an accidental pop band that lucked into two spectacular songs at the very start of their career that were only slightly indicative of the type of music they actually wanted to make, but instantly hit a nerve. They then spent five years winning people over on the strength of those two songs. And now that they’ve got us to a second date, they’ve decided to eschew the very qualities that made us want to ask them out again.

MGMT have earned the freedom to make the record they wanted to make, and I wish them all the best with it. I’m just not certain they’ll be hearing from me anytime soon.

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