For a group with such a major influence on the sound of 2010s alternative radio, MGMT has followed a very ’90s career arc. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: Weird band scores some fluke hits (in this case, the 2008 smashes “Time to Pretend,” “Electric Feel,” and “Kids”); weird band follows those hits with even weirder albums (2010’s “Congratulations” and 2013’s “MGMT”), making abundantly clear their utter disinterest in writing any future hits; casual fans lose interest, while the remaining faithful praise weird band’s artistic integrity. It’s a narrative admirably out of step with the aspirational nature of modern music culture, but at times it’s felt like MGMT was overdoing it, smothering natural melodic gifts in self-consciously “difficult” psychedelic affectations as if afraid they might accidentally write a catchy pop song again.
“Little Dark Age” is a logical next step for the Wesleyan-birthed duo of Andrew Van Wyngarden and Ben Goldwasser. Now that they’ve shed all commercial expectations and proven their freak bona fides, MGMT is free to make mildly warped, ’80s-indebted synth-pop just like all the other indie kids. The record makes liberal use of that decade’s most obvious sonic signifiers (retrofuturist keyboards, reverb-drenched drums), but while the production isn’t exactly lo-fi, there’s a similarly faded quality to it, accentuating the uncanny-valley nature of the band’s second-hand nostalgia.
MGMT has always had a healthy goofball streak, and “Little Dark Age” is no exception. Maybe Ariel Pink is to blame; he co-wrote “When You Die,” which would have sounded like a “Scooby-Doo” villain’s theme song even without the cartoon ghouls laughing in the background. That sense of art-damaged mischief also pops up on the aerobics instructor spoof “She Works Out Too Much” and “When You’re Small,” a gentle, “Dark Side of the Moon”-evoking number whose chorus features the immortal observation “When you’re small/No, you’re not very big at all.” Fun as these moments are, “Me and Michael” and “James” get more mileage out of embracing the guileless romanticism that gave ’80s ballads their thumping heartbeat.
Cliché as the endless rehashing of Reagan-era pop has become, MGMT spikes the formula with just enough outsider charm to milk an album’s worth of inspiration from the tired aesthetic. It’s not going to inspire legions of imitators à la “Oracular Spectacular,” but “Little Dark Age” should be both hooky and eccentric enough to please MGMT fans of all stripes.Terence Cawley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @terence_cawley