What is music for? This question maybe seems too massive to be worth considering, but listening to the new MGMT album, my bandmate Melissa Dyne and I have been asking ourselves this very question. Really, why do people make music, and why do other people listen to it? Music is such a weird thing to begin with. As an art medium it’s so potent and accessible. People get angry about music. People have sex to it. These days it’s rare to inspire extreme feelings with a painting or an installation. Only some kind of art freak would have sex to a painting. A piece of music, however, can move with ease through broad and diverse populations, like a virus, causing all sorts of powerful reactions. Divorced, these days, from even the plastic of a compact disc, the container for music now seems to be the place within a human being where a song is stored and loved and imperfectly remembered. In the brain? The heart? Some other empty space inside of us?
Listening to a new album from a band with whom I have history has the same highly charged lack of perspective as opening a birthday present. As I’m opening the box I’m trying to smile and remember that someone gave me this because they love me, but really I am thinking that this person doesn’t actually get me, and if they did they would just give me what I want instead of some shit that I can tell from first glance isn’t going to be useful to me. But an album isn’t a special present given directly to me, even though that is how my favorite albums feel. An album is someone else’s artwork, a snapshot of where an artist happened to find themselves creatively at a particular time.
I am aware that I have written two paragraphs without saying anything specific about the new MGMT album, so let me say that Melissa and I are very excited about what they’ve made. The long preface feels appropriate, I guess, because MGMT is a band with whom we have some history, and when I say “we” I mean literally just about everyone, as it’s basically impossible to find someone in the indie music spectrum who didn’t experience the communal infection of their first album, 2007’s Oracular Spectacular. I heard “Electric Feel” playing today in an upscale supermarket in Portland and it sounded as fantastic as ever, pumping through the grocery aisles. The songs from that album are so effortless and inevitable, it’s like they weren’t even made by people, like they already existed as a natural phenomenon somewhere out in the ether and simply needed to be revealed by humans who were paying special attention. That entire album, like the best popular hits, felt like something we’d all been waiting for without knowing it.
In my and Melissa’s limited knowledge, MGMT don’t appear to be people who ever set out to make the perfect album, or who approached music as a career goal or a potential social passport. The story goes that they were art students in Connecticut who jammed with each other and made some songs that turned out to be amazing, and that when Columbia offered them a record deal they didn’t respond for two weeks because they thought it was kind of ridiculous. These sound like people who ventured out on an earnest exploration of the unknown and stumbled into something massive without meaning to.
So the new album: it’s wild. If Oracular Spectacular landed squarely in the sweet spot of being the perfect sound of the moment, much of MGMT sounds like it came from another space and time altogether. A number of the songs hit both of us right where we like it — in the here and now. My first exposure to the album was the video for “Your Life Is a Lie.” Halfway through, I was so pumped that I ran into the other room and made Melissa watch it with me and we were both thrilled by how lucid and hilarious and heartfelt these brutal lyrics were. The sound is kind of a mixture of ’90s contentment and ’60s curiosity, and the message comes off without any of the negativity that you might think a song with this title would carry. It feels like a not rude awakening. The video helps bring this across, like a Cliff’s Notes to the dense text of the sound. It illuminates the meaning of the song while coloring it in bright tones and an air of cheerfulness. It made us feel like MGMT are people who are making things for all the right reasons.
About half of the album’s songs are modeled in the pop format (“Your Life Is a Lie,” “Introspection,” “Plenty of Girls in the Sea,” “Alien Days,” and “Mystery Disease”), easily caught in the head and definitely something one could/will hear on movie soundtracks. The rest of the album keeps one little toe in pop while expanding all other limbs into experimentation. In many songs there seem to be multiple planes of sound happening simultaneously, without an obvious suggestion of which one should be privileged above the others. One of the songs sounds like someone recorded an arena concert from a half mile away and then played it back through a boombox; it’s called “A Good Sadness.” It’s like a casual bystander’s perception of a washed-out version of one of their hits. I don’t totally get these songs yet and I think that’s the point.
The thing about making things is that you don’t always know what you are making while you are making it. In the best-case scenario, the thing that you are making is bigger than you or your ability to perceive it or conceptualize around it, so you sort of have to open yourself up and watch as the new life forms come out, and trust that the process won’t kill you. (Note: just about every MGMT video features beings that look like space creatures and mysterious life forms, sometimes being birthed or exorcised out of human bodies, just saying.) When MGMT were making music in a college dorm for their best friends, the prospect of becoming a band that got invited to the Grammys was a bold step into the unknown. They went on to make songs that girls wanted to take off their shirts to at Coachella, and one can imagine that possibly feeling like old news to them now. These guys appear to be sincere seekers, reaching out into wherever it is that the unheard sounds live, in league with all of us music lovers who are collectively trying to figure out where we go next. We are so glad to have them around.