MGMT and the Quest for the Mainstream
Unlike the recent Jim Morrison “sightings” in various small towns throughout the rural United States, there is one myth in the music industry that holds much greater credibility. It is called the sophomore slump. The sophomore slump is when an artist releases a successful debut album, but fails to match that success on the second album. This theory is based on the sole power of expectation and the ways we consume popular music. The more hit singles from the first record, the more pressure we place on artists to repeat that on their sophomore attempt. As you can imagine, this rarely bodes well for the artist type, and crippling expectations often damage the vision of the second album. In some cases, they even ruin careers.
There isn’t another musician in the last 20 years who has struggled with this more than MGMT, the band known for their immensely popular debut, Oracular Spectacular. The album pumped out radio hits like “Kids,” “Electric Feel,” and “Time to Pretend.” The music was a perfect blend of psychedelic rock and modern pop. The melodies were highly addictive and it was hard to find anyone in the room who didn’t get down with the sound. MGMT was expected to take over the world, but it was quickly discovered that they had different plans. Instead of pursuing mainstream success, the band focused on writing music that puzzles you after listening to it the first time.
After two failed attempts at experimental albums, nearly everyone close to the band lost faith in their ability to be commercially successful. Their record label, critics, and even the band felt that their flash of brilliance was potentially over. Most of the songs in the most recent two albums lacked cohesion and accessibility, but MGMT released a few tracks during those years that suggested they hadn’t completely lost their sense. Tracks like “Congratulations” and “Alien Days” showed glimpses of what the band was still capable of. Despite the two album slumps, critics and fans always maintained hope that their groove would return once more.
After spending a few years apart, Andrew VanWyngarden and Ben Goldwasser (the founders of MGMT), decided work in the studio again. Their producer suggested a more simple approach to the songwriting: just focus on the verse and chorus. This enabled the two musicians to write like they did in their college dorm; the place where they wrote hits like “Time to Pretend” and “Kids.”
The result of their creative makeover is a much more accessible sound for MGMT. The first three singles for their upcoming album, Little Dark Age, embrace a poppier side that we have been missing from them for so many years. The most hopeful track is “Hand it Over,” a synth-based pop song that is surprisingly safe for a band that loves to experiment. The album is said to come out on February 9th, and will be followed by a massive US tour. In the meantime, fans are left to wonder if MGMT still has what it takes to thrive in the mainstream.