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MGMT's new album shows it can still keep music world guessing

With songs like 'Astro-Mancy' and 'Your Life Is a Lie,' Benjamin Goldwasser and Andrew VanWyngarden again veer off-course in their latest album.

September 07, 2013|By Randall Roberts, Los Angeles Times Pop Music Critic
  • A new MGMT album by Andrew VanWyngarden, left, and Benjamin Goldwasser was marked by long jam sessions and recordings.
A new MGMT album by Andrew VanWyngarden, left, and Benjamin Goldwasser… (Katie Falkenberg / Los Angeles…)

The creation story behind "Astro-Mancy," MGMT's rhythmic freakout on its self-titled new album, is instructive when considering the duo's oblong output over the years. A band best known for its string of genre-defying dance-pop hits of 2008, "Time to Pretend," "Kids" and "Electric Feel," MGMT has since its rise succeeded in upending expectations — sometimes in mystifying ways.

Despite the whirling rhythms and psychedelic electronic noise rolling within, "Astro-Mancy" was born of a failed attempt to rein it in a bit. Which perhaps makes sense. The last album, "Congratulations," was an odd, angular affair, at least given MGMT's early history of dance-along, sing-along hits. The new stuff splits the difference.

"We were trying to write a song and be traditional about it — come up with some sort of chord progression or hook," said Benjamin Goldwasser on a recent Sunday afternoon in downtown Los Angeles. His musical partner Andrew VanWyngarden, with hair like Donovan's circa 1968, sat on a couch across from him.

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You wouldn't guess by their demeanor that they'd be capable of fronting a headstrong, wildly experimental rock band able to push at the edges of pop while exploring the music's long, strange history. A few hours later, though, they'd do just that, performing new and old music for thousands at the FYF Festival, where their beat-heavy mantras, meandering pop songs and imagistic aesthetics were on full, primal display.

Working on a song for their third album for Columbia Records at producer Dave Fridmann's studio in rural New York, the pair started messing with the chord sketch until it was thick with layers. "We kept overdubbing all these things, and slowly it turned into less and less of a pop song, until you could barely even make out the chord progression in some ways," said Goldwasser.

A pure and blissful psychedelic dance rock song, the jam echoes such sounds, among others, as Beatles' "Revolver"-era studio experiments, King Tubby's twisted Jamaican dub and lysergic Pink Floyd hallucinations. It's virtually everything except the traditional song the duo set out to make. Halfway in, the piece moves into an escalated groove that seems to seize control — the music working the players instead of vice versa, as if part of some grand plan.

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MGMT (shortened from the Management because another band had already claimed the name) was born at Wesleyan University in the mid-'00s, where the two met as music majors. Part of their formative work, recalled VanWyngarden, was to suggest pop music world domination, to "mimic or act like we were huge pop stars — and the irony was we were playing in front of 10 people in a dorm room. We had this running joke between us that we wanted to get as hugely popular as possible and then really bombastically destroy it all. So there is that drive to subvert things from the inside in our music or ethos."

Evidence they're succeeding: Their new single is the bleakly themed "Your Life Is a Lie," which they recently performed on "Late Show With David Letterman," to much bafflement from the Internet. The performance featured a giant cowbell on which was written in bold letters, "BE AWARE." VanWyngarden, wearing sparkly star-shaped sunglasses, clanged on it in rhythm while singing the lines: "Here's the deal/Open your eyes/Your life is a lie/Don't say a word."

MGMT laid out its own fictional life for "Time to Pretend," its best known song. Featuring a plunky synth melody and lyrics that imagine the band's ascent, fame and ultimate demise, the song opens with VanWyngarden admitting a desire to "make some music, make some money, find some models for wives" and moves to imagining children with, then divorce from, said models. No problem, he sings wryly: "We'll find some more models — everything must run its course."

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The song concludes with the two choking on their own vomit, rock-star style, and dying: "That will be the end," VanWyngarden sings as the catchy synthesizer melody propels the song toward verse: "We were fated to pretend."

Somewhat miraculously, the band nearly achieved the level of fame it predicted — only to veer off in a wildly divergent path on "Congratulations." Released in 2011 to a mostly baffled populace, "Congratulations" was a gymnastic guitar rock maneuver. VanWyngarden aptly described the record as having "a sort of cartoon wacky vibe."

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