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MGMT Joe Banks , September 19th, 2013 05:44

While it's clearly not fair to judge an album purely in comparison with a band's previous output, the temptation is strong in the case of MGMT. It's certainly what Sony Music must have been doing these past few years. MGMT's debut Oracular Spectacular hit paydirt and then some, with its soft rock/disco trinity of singles – 'Time To Pretend', 'Electric Feel', and of course 'Kids' – achieving near ubiquity across radio, social media and youth TV programme trailers. In an increasingly fragmented market, quintessential art pop slackers Ben Goldwasser and Andrew VanWyngarden seemed to have come up with a magical formula for uniting the various indie, dance and hipster tribes, and turning the zeitgeist into hard currency…

So you can only imagine the reaction of their record company when they delivered follow-up album Congratulations. Out went the tightly arranged hits produced within an inch of their life by Dave Fridmann; in came Sonic Boom and a ramshackle collection of songs that massively ramped up the psyche/prog tendencies merely hinted at on their debut. Its reception was decidedly muted, but if nothing else, it reset expectations of where MGMT's collective head was at.

Now they're back with album number three, the somewhat ominously titled MGMT – ominous because eponymous albums beyond debuts often signal either a misguided statement of intent (this is the real us!) or a profound lack of inspiration (we're breaking up soon, will this do?). Despite affecting the demeanour of recently awoken media students, Goldwasser and VanWyngarden strike me as too savvy to fall for either option. But what MGMT does sound like is an album made by a band who've decided they might want a major label career after all.

In simplistic terms, MGMT sits somewhere between the first two albums. Fridmann and the big-sounding processed beats are back, as is the faintly digital sheen of the 21st century, but there's nothing here that's going to seriously bother the dance floor. At the same time, the cosmic stoner vibe has been retained from Congratulations, with song hooks, such as they are, hidden in the mix rather than conveniently signposted.

MGMT also emphasises more than ever that this is a band with two distinct sides to its music. On the one hand, MGMT plough a familiar US indie rock furrow similar to the likes of Beck, Ween, Polyphonic Spree etc, that's tuneful and clever, but oh dear, also a bit quirky. On the other hand, they dig deeper to create a contemporary electro-psychedelic sound that's trippy but still accessible.

The first side of the band is ably illustrated by recent single 'Your Life Is A Lie', a jaunty sing-along that sounds like a splice between Devo and They Might Be Giants, and which set the online world alight for a couple of minutes with its crazeee video featuring (for about a second) the Fonz. The label even got them to play it on David Letterman's Late Show, with perhaps more amusing results.

Also in this camp is album opener 'Alien Days', sci-fi country rock that teeters perilously on the brink between childlike and childish; 'Introspection', an inoffensive blend of 60s and 80s psyche kitsch; and 'Plenty Of Girls In The Sea', a nauseating Beach Boys pastiche that's just plain horrible, prompting the listener to ask Nigel Tufnel-style, "Is this some kind of joke?".

More palatable (to these ears at least) are the wider, more expansive songs such as 'Mystery Disease', which creates a dense and, err, mysterious sound against a strident mechanical groove. Similarly, 'A Good Sadness' incorporates swirling electronica reminiscent of both the heavier end of Boards of Canada and the last Liars' album, while 'Astro-Mancy' is spacey machine music that doesn't really go anywhere, though this may of course be the point.

And then there's the tracks that manage to meld the two sides together. 'Cool Song No. 2' (a lazy or cynical title, take your pick) is an electro-tribal number on nodding terms with the playfulness of early Eno (MGMT's paean to the ambient overlord, the imaginatively titled 'Brian Eno', was Congratulations' most memorable song). 'I Love You Too, Death' is like the scene in Blade Runner where J.F. Sebastian enters his apartment to be greeted by a parade of noisy automata, VanWyngarden huskily intoning a lullaby on top. And finally, album closer 'An Orphan Of Fortune' establishes an electronic Krautrock vibe, before morphing into a drugged Supertramp.

MGMT isn't the radio-friendly unit shifting "return to form" that their label might have still been hoping for, but neither is it a further left turn into musical obscurity. On its own merits, it's a decent enough record with some interesting tracks on it, even if they sometimes sound like nicely turned B-sides rather than top drawer material. But my main question coming away from this album is ultimately, who it's for? While Oracular Spectacular had a diversity of admirers, I can't help but feel that the contrasting styles of MGMT may struggle to find an audience outside of the group's core followers.