What we wanted since 2007
9Fleshlights

I hate it when musicians try too hard to be “artsy”, or push against the establishment just for the sake of being contrarian. We get it. You’re against the evil corporate establishment, and you’re too cool to do something for the masses. Your art is far too intellectually-broad and experimental to be held within the confines of the dreaded mainstream.

The problem with the modern-anti-major-label-disestablishmentarianism is that if you make unlistenable trash, your fans will quickly turn away and find alternatives. There will always be a kitschy, fun new pop-rock act out there. MGMT learned this lesson the hard way.

Imagine for a moment, LeBron James won his first championship in Miami, and the next season, he decided to quit the game of basketball, and be the best at agility and passing drills. Granted, he’d probably be excellent at passing a basketball through tires, and running around cones. It might even be mildly entertaining, but it’s not the reason I want to watch James play basketball. Would it be difficult to throw a one-hop, full-court pass, through a tire? Sure. It’d take an incredible amount of precision, and clearly talent would play a factor… but after about five minutes, I’d be bored.

That’s how we arrive at MGMT’s fourth studio album, “Little Dark Age“. In 2007, and going into 2008, pop music was dominated by the eccentric singles from their debut “Oracular Spectacular“. You couldn’t walk into a Forever 21 for 36 months without hearing “Time To Pretend”, “Kids” or “Electric Feel”. Having two massive singles on one album is hard, but three is even harder. It suggested that it wasn’t just luck at play. MGMT really had something special, and pop music fans just assumed MGMT would follow up “Oracular Spectacular” with another round of pop earworms.

… and then they didn’t.

 

When “Congratulations” was released in in 2010, I was confused. Of course, I had read interviews about how their first three popular singles were supposed to be subtly against pop music. I had read interviews that suggested after signing to Columbia, MGMT would be pursuing a more psychedelic sound. I believed that Columbia would probably reign them in a bit, and keep their pop duo’s star on the rise.

… and boy was I wrong.

“Congratulations” was nine tracks of self indulgent, auto-erotic asphyxiation. I love experimental music. I love psychedelic music. Yet, somehow, MGMT was trying something they clearly loved, but they rest of us didn’t know what to make of it. It was like watching a BBQ pitmaster decide to get into pastries. Yeah, they’re both technically foods, but pulled pork is not puff pastry. “Congratulations” was music for too-woke art students, feigning intelligence by bringing up historical art concepts way too often. (We get it, Trevor, you learned about Dadaism last semester, and now you think you understand post WWI society. You don’t. Just paint something or shutup, asshole.)

… and then it got worse.

MGMT’s self-titled third studio album was sub-genre of a sub-genre that most music fans only pretend to be into: Neo-Psych. No artist really does it well, and anyone who takes it seriously brags about not owning a cell phone. The genre itself sucks, and the only reason for it to exist is so other artists can cite it as an influence. You shouldn’t actually make a full length, neo-psych album. It’s always too fuzzy. It’s always too lo-fi. It’s always too sweeping. So logically, MGMT tightened the grip on their dick, pulled the straps around their neck, and did their best David Carradine impression. At least with “Congratulations” they had the courtesy not to look their audience in the eye while they were getting off, but with “MGMT”, it just got awkward.

At this juncture, I left MGMT for dead. On the lonely desert highway of  my “Favorites from Before The Housing Market Crashed” Spotify playlist, MGMT would always have sparkling effervescent hooks, and soaring psychedelic melodies. Their singles would serve as a beautiful reminder of where we were in the good old days… you know, the Bush years. We now look back fondly on the Bush years? That’s a thing? Anyway…

 

Art is supposed to be indicative of its time, while also attempting to be timeless. The singles from “Oracular Spectacular” accomplished that, in their whimsical, bright, very late 2000s way. “Time To Pretend” felt like the time it came out, and that’s why it worked well.

“Little Dark Age” is a brilliant album because it feels dark, while also keeping the family together for the pop hooks we crave. Some of these songs are heavy, and perhaps a little too real, but 2018 isn’t 2007-2008. President Obama ain’t walking through that door to save us. Tracks like “TSLAMP” (Time Spent Looking At My Phone) approach subject matter about smartphones, without somehow making it feel like a cliche. It’s not a rote Buzzfeed opinion piece about “criticizing those damn Millennials” for being glued to our phones. It’s about how we’re disconnected, and we’re dying looking at our phones.

If you can find another song like “Me and Michael” that references binary star systems, please let me know, because this is… (*takes massive bong rip*) (*coughing sounds*)… some really deep shit, man.

Binary star sink like the setting sun
Too happy with ourselves to notice when the change had come
So you think the losing side would never break dividing lines
But sanctity wasn’t in doubt

A binary star system is a solar system like ours, but instead of one sun, it has two. So, while the song sounds like it’s about a perfect friendship, being bright and shining — it’s actually about two people damaging each other through their mutual attraction. Eventually, binary systems, for all their perfection, break each other apart through the sheer force of gravity. The explosions destroy entire planetary systems.

Even the tracks on this album that shouldn’t technically be good, like “Days That Got Away” still feel like they need to be there. If you know the title, you know the lyrics, because it’s brutally simple. Yet, “Little Dark Age” needed a buffer in it, just for your ears to have a change of pace for the sake of album flow — and sure enough, this track does the job perfectly. The filler songs on “Little Dark Age” don’t feel like filler. That’s saying something.

There’s a greater lesson about hedonism we can take away from MGMT’s discography. Bear with me here, because this is like, “Master’s thesis level” shit I’m giving you about how music and art relate to the human condition. Philosopher Henry Sidgwick was notable because he purported that you can’t give yourself pleasure. You have to acquire it from other sources. Moreover, it was Friedrich Nietzsche who attempted to explain what makes something bad.

What is bad? Everything that is born of weakness.

MGMT made two bad albums, because they were trying to pleasure themselves from a place of weakness. David Carradine ended up killing himself trying to masturbate in Thailand, because he didn’t know when to stop tightening the belt. You don’t get artistic points for jerking it in new, creative ways. The Paradox of Hedonism is finding balance in your pleasure, and knowing you’re not going to do it alone. MGMT forgot that music is fun because you have fans to enjoy it with.

That’s why I’m glad MGMT is back to what I wanted. They were society’s Fleshlight. (Don’t Google this from work. You have been warned.) Their sound was highly enjoyable, new, and creative. It takes a special kind of genius to see a flashlight and think, “I’d jerk off with something like that, if only I could install a synthetic vagina inside it.” That’s what their original fusion of tongue-in-cheek psych-pop was. No one wants to be famous for inventing the Fleshlight, because metaphorically, it’s pop music. It’s a messy, problematic, cookie cutter solution to enjoying music — but it works, damnit.

Instead of handing us a new, improved Fleshlight for their second and third albums, they handed us a belt, some thumb tacks, and a tub of Icy Hot. “Sure, a Fleshlight is great, but have your tried choking yourself, while sitting on thumb tacks, as Icy Hot slowly burns the inside of your urethra?”

No. I haven’t. And I don’t want to. I’m sure someone out there enjoys that weird ass shit, but hedonism doesn’t work that way for most of us. I just wanted my damn Fleshlight.

Thanks for giving us back our Fleshlight, MGMT. Thanks for being my musical Fleshlight.