MGMT on “Little Dark Age”

A Much-Needed Break

Jun 12, 2018 Photography by Brad Elterman Issue #63 - Courtney Barnett
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A steep learning curve presents itself when your debut summits not only numerous year-end lists but is instantly immortalized on rankings labeled "Best Albums Ever."

For Andrew VanWyngarden and Ben Goldwasser, the duo known as MGMT, the release of Oracular Spectacular thrust them into a curve to which they're just now adjusting. Suddenly their time was not their own. Identities began to shift. The spotlight was real. Grammy nominations and global charts.

Three albums later, MGMT has stopped asking so many questions, having moved through a toddler phase of incessant "whats" and "whens" and "hows."

"Because we've had songs that were popular or on the radio, we were asking, 'Where do we fit?' Especially on our second album and even into making our third album, we were still kind of concerned about that," says VanWyngarden. "We'd ask, 'What is this for? Besides ourselves, who is the audience now?' We've definitely been able, with this most recent album, to be more relaxed in the process."

Little Dark Age is the recently released fourth album, the one on which a creative duo has learned to make music on their own termssuch as the days before Oracular Spectacular hit shelves late in 2007.

"The new songs are a little bit less overwrought at times," says VanWyngarden. "We've been able to finally do what we've been talking about for years, which is allow for there to be space, to allow for a certain rawness to the song and not fill everything up with every idea possible at every moment, which we've definitely done in the past. I don't know if that's the result of maturing or becoming older, but it seems like it happened."

"It was more about throwing things away and not overthinking the process too much," says Goldwasser in agreement. "A big part of it was that we gave ourselves enough time and space to clear our heads and start fresh. We've had trouble with that in the past. We were more patient with ourselves and allowed ourselves to have more fun."

The guys in MGMT are quick to back off of any mention of the word "mastery." Songcraft is still a slippery exercise, even one decade in, but they are finally adjusting to the demands, all the while pushing back with some of their own.

They took off almost an entire year in 2015 after wrapping up the exhausting tour cycle for their self-titled third album. After the break, VanWyngarden says the pair began to "jam together, but it didn't really feel like intensive writing." The relaxed approach was in sharp contrast to previous recording sessions and ultimately led to the dark synth beauty of Little Dark Age.

"I think the creative process will never stop being sort of an internal struggle, in terms of confidence and questioning ourselves," says VanWyngarden. "I think that's just part of the process when you're making music. But I do think that we are much less concerned with how or where MGMT fits in or even what MGMT is.

"I don't think we ever let that affect the actual music we were making in the past," he continues. "I think we always ended up sticking with whatever we felt was right at the moment and not trying to make something that was fitting into a trend or a certain style. But I think we've drastically reduced the amount of stress that we have when trying to answer, 'What is MGMT?'"

"On the last couple records, I don't think we cared too much about what people would think of the music, but on this one, we were definitely able to push that out of our heads even more this time around," adds Goldwasser. "Yet somehow this album is even more accessible. Part of it, I think, has to do with making music that was fun for us in the moment."

While the music is more buoyant and vibrant this time around, the messages largely remain the same on any MGMT album. The anxiety, the introspection, the cultural and personal critiques are all still presentthis time, they're wrapped in musically incongruent compositions. Sad songs cloaked in a good time.

"It's funny because all of our records have dealt with anxiety about the future and what's happening to the world in some way or another, but the last record, the music was designed to feel anxious," says Goldwasser. "On this one the subject matter is still anxious, but the music is the opposite. I think for both of us, a lot of our favorite music tends to do that. A lot of our favorite pop music sounds really poppy but when you listen to the lyrics, you realize it's about some really dark stuff. That's what we discovered with this album."

[Note: This article originally appeared in Under the Radar's Spring 2018 Issue (March/April/May 2018), which is out now. This is its debut online.]

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