When psychedelic rockers MGMT released their excellent fourth record, “Little Dark Age,” last month, critics and fans across social media hailed it as the group’s return to form as a pop band. It was an odd reaction to an act that has made clear its aesthetic is defined by a lack of “form.” If anything, “Little Dark Age” proves MGMT is a proudly independent-minded group that refuses to be classified or commodified.
Of course, MGMT, the brainchild of multi-instrumentalists and vocalists Ben Goldwasser and Andrew VanWyngarden, became accidental pop stars when their debut, “Oracular Spectacular,” became a surprise smash thanks to their hits “Time to Pretend,” “Kids,” and “Electric Feel” in 2008. They quickly became pigeonholed as a synth-pop band despite their more cerebral, experimental tendencies, which they explored without apologies on their coolly received follow-ups, “Congratulations” (2010) and “MGMT” (2013).
Indeed “Little Dark Age” does feature some of the band’s best pop tunes — “Me and Michael” will probably go down as one of the year’s most irresistible songs — but a close listen thankfully reveals the kind of depth and sonic exploration at the heart of their best work. It’s challenging, compelling music because it seduces while defying formula and easy labeling.
“It’s not like the band is a separate construct and we make music for whatever that is with a specific purpose or genre in mind,” says Goldwasser via phone from the road. MGMT’s current tour brings them to the Orpheum Theatre Friday for a sold-out show. “We just make our music the way we need to. For us, it’s strange to hear other people’s narratives about what we should be about.
“I’m not sure what was meant by return to form, which was what we heard, because we’ve never been a band that’s focused on writing singles. The fact that we had songs on our first record become successful was kind of an accident, and definitely not something we were shooting for. We just wanted to stay true to ourselves and make music we were happy with. That’s always been how we’ve approached it. That’s what we did here with the new songs.”
With “Little Dark Age,” MGMT has made a record for the Trump era, filled with restless songs about alienation, frayed feelings, and tension. Despite some indelible hooks, it’s uneasy music for uneasy times. When they used dark in the title, they weren’t kidding. The spacious “When You Die,” co-written with Ariel Pink, opens, “I’m not that nice/ I’m mean and evil/ Don’t call me nice/ I’m gonna eat your heart out/ I’ve got some work to do/ Baby, I’m ready to blow my lid off.”
The quiet, intelligent Goldwasser (like VanWyngarden, a Wesleyan University graduate) says the music is one of the ways the duo copes with the seemingly chaotic news cycle. “There’s so much going on in the world right now that makes us really anxious, and making this record was in a lot of ways therapy for us. We don’t feel like we have that much different to add to the conversation that hasn’t already been said, but it’s clear things are messed up, and they make us feel crazy at times. It’s our way of dealing with it all.”
He adds that making music was important for them as a way to stave off some of the anxiety and alienation they sing about. “We wanted to make the record to connect with people because we want to feel like we’re not alone. It’s about that human connection. At this point, that’s so necessary. I think the record’s hopeful. We hope that there will be a time when we can look back and think: OK, there was a way out that we didn’t see all along. I genuinely need to be optimistic.”
“Little Dark Age” is the first album from the band after a five-year break from recording. In the swiftly evolving pop music world, that kind of hiatus can be dangerous, but Goldwasser admits it was necessary for the duo’s health and creativity. “The cycle was getting to us: Make a record, go on tour, get on a bus, the hotel routine.
“It was important for both of us to have a period of time where we recognized what normal life was like again — have friends we see on a regular basis, and then approach writing a record from that perspective instead of writing songs about being a musician on tour with a crazy lifestyle. I definitely do not want to write songs about that. That’s when you know you’re in trouble,” he says with a laugh.
After MGMT’s last two genre-bending, psychedelic records were met with some disdain by fans and dismissed as indulgent by many critics, Goldwasser claims there was no trepidation in putting out “Little Dark Age,” and the duo was prepared for whatever reaction they received.
“We’re a little bit screwed as a band because the first thing we put out was so successful with hit singles, but we listen to so much music that’s out of left field and different. At this point, I think whatever we do is going to disappoint somebody,” he says diplomatically.
“If we make experimental music, people will say we’ve gotten too self-indulgent. If we come out with something poppy, people will dismiss it by saying we’re just trying to reclaim our initial success. Honestly, we’re trying to connect with people, but we’re not trying to make everybody happy. That’s impossible. If it connects with one person, then that’s great.”Ken Capobianco can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.