The older I get, the more I suspect there's a trick But really there's no trip at all that doesn't result in a fall -- MGMT, "Siberian Breaks"
It was a model rock 'n' roll success story. College mates Ben Goldwasser and Andrew VanWyngarden form a band and get snatched up by Columbia Records, a major major label. Their debut album, 2007's "Oracular Spectacular," is a mildly trippy set of dance rock that hits a nerve with the festival crowds, going gold and selling 3 million digital downloads globally, according to Nielsen SoundScan. They enjoy such success that even before laying down any new tracks they decide to title their sophomore album "Congratulations."
What could go wrong?
Cut to the offices of Chicago's WXRT-FM (93.1), one of many radio stations where the songs "Kids" and "Time to Pretend" saturated playlists for a good, long time. Programming director Norm Winer earlier this year was eagerly awaiting the second MGMT album. But in describing his reaction to his first spin of "Congratulations," he struggles for diplomacy. "It sort of surprised me," he said. A pause, fishing for the words. "It wasn't what I was expecting."
Instead of delivering another bucket of radio-friendly nuggets, MGMT practically went Captain Beefheart on us, turning in a sophomore set of psychedelic sounds, challenging arrangements and an overall production that sounds like a lost Strawberry Alarm Clock side project. "Congratulations" is an exciting, anti-commercial plunge ahead (or behind), and despite the mixed reactions it still debuted at No. 2 on Billboard's album chart.
Goldwasser and VanWyngarden wouldn't be the first rockers to hit it big and, just as everyone was begging for more of the same, take a hard left turn.
"We had a lot of people suddenly telling us who we were," VanWyngarden told me in a phone interview early in the current tour. "They seemed more sure about that than we were."
Complicating the reaction to what is a fairly complicated album, Goldwasser and VanWyngarden started talking up the album before its release -- trying to warn people. There's not another "Kids," they said. There might not even be any singles released, they said. This album is ... really different, they said.
No kidding. "Congratulations" opens with bongo and harpsichords and backing vocals that sound like Celtic imps from an old Moody Blues record. "Someone's Missing" ponders a phantom limb in spacey falsetto before concluding with an AM-radio jangly guitar breakdown. Two songs honor disparate influences on the band: "Song for Dan Treacy," a tribute to the leader of Television Personalities, and the rollicking "Brian Eno." At its most accessible, there's the fuzzy groove of "Flash Delirium"; at its most out-there, there's the 12-minute suite "Siberian Breaks," which evolves from acoustic folk ballad to orchestrated philosophical anthem and again to a trickling New Age crescendo.
"This is a very conservative album, in a way," VanWyngarden said. "It's not like we went into this thinking we'd record us taking acid and jamming and see how experimental or avant-garde we could get. We wanted to make a sweet pop album because, you know, we actually do want to have a career in music. We were a little confused when early press on the album said it was career suicide. I think that's a little drastic a conclusion to reach."
Some fans still balked. VanWyngarden understands the confusion, but he thinks time is on MGMT's side.
"I think people will appreciate that we took an honest approach, in the end," VanWyngarden said. "Some did, some didn't get it. ... We've always taken a little bit of pleasure in confusing people. This sounds pretentious, and maybe it is. When people can't understand that one minute we're making electro-pop songs like 'Kids' and the next we're creating a 12-minute soft-rock, New Age suite, people assume we don't know what we're doing. And we don't! The truth is, nobody does. I wish people would just listen to it. It's just music."
The 12-minute song -- still such a stumbling block to our MTV-shaped attention spans. "Siberian Breaks" coos and flutters through what seems like five different songs spliced together in one medley. The lyrical themes of loss and disappointment are consistent throughout. VanWyngarden swears it was one creative idea; it just "eventually kept going, developing, inspired by 'Surf's Up' by the Beach Boys into this little suite." He said this excitedly, recalling the creative process. Then he sighed: "Apparently that's really offensive to a lot of people."
Another song openly revels in MGMT's new anti-commercial approach. "Brian Eno" chugs along with pinched Zappa-like vocals, and it's definitely not a tribute to the revered composer and producer. Listen to "Congratulations" and, of course, an early glam-Eno (Roxy Music) slips through, which VanWyngarden cops to. But the song pokes fun at Eno as musical sacred cow: "When I was stuck he'd make me memorize elaborate curses / tinctures and formulas to ditch the chori and flip the verses ... Dipping swords in metaphors, yeah, but what does he know? / He's got the whole world behind him, he's Brian Eno!"
"Eno is this godlike figure in music now. Producing U2 and Coldplay, he's like a saint, and we're making fun of that. Good naturedly, I hope."
They're killing their idols. And has Eno heard the song?
"Yeah, he has, apparently," VanWyngarden said. "We sent him the album before it came out and never heard from him. I assumed he thought we were bumbling idiots. The song is slightly offensive." He chuckles. "A week and a half ago, we heard from his manager. He said Eno really likes the song, but is creeped out a bit. He likes the album, too, which is good to hear. We've asked him to be in the video. ... Maybe we can get him to join us at Lollapalooza and cover songs from 'Here Come the Warm Jets' or something."
Part of the disconnect between fans and the new album might be the previously mentioned 3 million digital downloads. Those who claim to be disappointed by "Congratulations" must only have "Kids" and "Time to Pretend" on their iPods. Listen carefully to "Oracular Spectacular," and the woozy, psychedelic undertones aren't exactly subtle. Keep in mind, that record was produced and mixed by Dave Fridmann, the same pair of ears who made the trippy sounds of the Flaming Lips and Mercury Rev palatable to modern rock radio. Fridmann mixed some of "Congratulations," too, but production duties were handled by Spacemen 3's Sonic Boom (Pete Kember). VanWyngarden said both men supported MGMT's more expansive sound.
"They understood we weren't distancing ourselves from the first album. They understood what I wish other people would: This is just another phase of the band."