MGMT’s fourth studio recording Little Dark Age is a cavalcade of synth-based pop. It all started in 2007 with Oracular Spectacular, containing their most famous hits, Time to Pretend, Electric Feel and Kids; Little Dark Age is a return to great synth-based songs.
I purchased this album on vinyl, with its striking yellow cover with symbolic black semi-pointillist artwork, it certainly catches the eye.
The music on offer is nostalgic 80’s synth music, and with the collaboration of Ariel Pink on a couple of tracks, you know this is going to be an album to catch the ears. In fact, the whole album has a distinct Ariel Pink feel, with a more glossy lively ‘pop’ sound. I suspect the same sound will translate well in digital (I have not yet downloaded the digital files you get free with the vinyl purchase).
Little Dark Age is well engineered and produced, and from the get-go, you can hear the influences of Ariel Pink and others, and no doubt – either deliberately or on purpose – a certain early 1990’s computer game soundtrack, that would not be out of place in Sega’s Sonic the Hedgehog.
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Bang! Here we go, this track sets the tone of the whole album. This cheeky song about a girl who seemingly breaks up with a guy because he doesn’t keep fit. Silly you might say, but be prepared for more of the same at various points on the album. The storytelling is carried by the absolutely spectacular layering, colours and harmonies in the music. The female backing vocal motifs are reminiscent of 80’s bubble-gum pop, but somehow it just feels so deep against the backdrop of the dark harmonies, glossy synths and pulsating bassline.
Possibly the most dark and sinister of all the tracks, which is reported by many to be symbolic of depression. However you want to interpret the vast amount of symbolic lyrics, this is definitely a trippy dark romp, with elements of baroque-pop and computer-game style basslines. It feels, to me at any rate, there is a certain goth-punkelement to the track, although it may not be immediately obvious to some.
Again, we have here a track that could easily be a punk track, but the glossy pop dressing somehow brilliantly juxtaposes the evilness with a pleasing sound. It’s all so polite-fully evil. The vocal hooks are highly melodic, which uses a nice mix of repeated notes and motifs that mainly move by step. This gives When You Die a punchy set of vocals, which are highly easy on the ears. Ariel Pink provides the backing vocals with excellent effect.
Take yourself back to 1984. Me and Michael is a pleasant song and makes you feel like you’re hearing someone’s nostalgic thoughts. The chorus is super catchy in mid-80’s ballad style; the melody is solid and the syncopation is not at all forced, giving the whole chorus a smooth sound which follows the contours of the phrase. It’s so very nicely done; Me and Michael is a ‘lovely’ track and definitely to my ears, one of the highlights of the album.
Translated to Time Spent Looking At My Phone, TSLAMP is a cheeky and candid look at society’s obsession with our smart phones. This could quite easily have been a serious track, but I think MGMT have played the track well, not being seen to be social warriors. The chorus is catchy and pleasant; again the early 1990’s Sega sound rearing its head. The guitar solo is reminiscent of early Mike Oldfield.
Although Ariel Pink is not credited with collaborating on James, there is no doubt MGMT have used the Ariel Pink sound as a template. But don’t be fooled, this is no cheap-shot copycat song. James is a beautifully-layered song, with quasi-baritone vocals and lots of fantastic interplay of foreground and background synth work; a lost commodity in today’s over-engineered music. The storytelling is executed with sonic brilliance and there is a distinct feel of The Divine Comedy, whether intended or not.
An interesting break from the more pop-sounding tracks on the album, Days That Got Away is a romp of synth meanderings and textures. Not much in the way of vocals here. In fact, there is no documented lyrics of Days That Got Away. For the little vocals that there are, only the title of the song is heard. On the whole, the track feels like a trippy experience at an 1980’s bingo hall in some quiet sleepy town of America. The inclusion of woodwinds towards the end, lend a smattering of Mike Oldfield texture.
Back into full-throttle nostalgia pop. It’s a no-nonsense big-style mid-80’s American discotheque track with bombastic drums, glossy synths and (which seems to be) an uncredited female lead vocal. One should not be fooled with the upbeat feel of this song, a closer look and listen at the lyrics shows a certain darkness and bleakness of the human spirit. A juxtaposition that works so well; a multi-layered song that is not trying to send you into depression. It’s rather like a wolf in sheep’s clothing, and I like it.
Leonard Cohen meets Bob Dylan, meets one of the best drops I’ve ever heard. Drops are common in electronic music, but Little Dark Age doesn’t really have much in the way of them. The send-up in When You’re Small is as sexy as hell. It’s so smooth and so unexpected. The drum sound is 90s in a Mazzy Star kind of way, mixed with the most jazzy and warm sound of Steely Dan. The best thing about it, is you have no idea it’s coming. Before the drop, it’s like a totally different song.
Sadly all good things must come to an end. This final track on Little Dark Age does feel like a “goodbye for now, see you next time”. Hand it Over feels like The Beatles’ track that was never released. Even the backing vocals have The Beatles’ sound. A beautiful close to the album.
Go and buy the album! For my ears, MGMT have hit it right on the spot with this record. If you want some good songs with a nostalgic glossy pop 80’s sound, a bit of silliness, darkness and bleekness, all the while dressed in a beautifully-crafted pop record, you’re in for a treat.
James McFadyen is a prolific composer of instrumental music, including a sizeable catalogue of works for brass band.