Written and reviewed by Miles Hewitt
Recently I’ve been suffering from a mild bout of insomnia, brought on mostly by a lack of sleep. Joking aside, being sick is awful and, as I have no doubt you can attest, even the smallest tickle in one’s throat can lead to (apologies to Dylan Thomas) raging against the night and ever-diminishing unconscious hours. Soon, I’ll get better and return to the hours of operation typical for a freshman in college, whatever that means.
Anyway, last night it was four in the morning and there was still no chance that I was going to fall asleep, so I decided to go on a walk and explore the Harvard campus and surrounding city of Cambridge. I threw on a coat and a stupid hat and grabbed headphones, a Walkman, and MGMT’s second album, Congratulations.
Wandering around in the cold, about sixty percent lost, listening to a record I’ve been meaning to get to know better, was one of the best experiences I’ve had in weeks. The silence of nighttime in an unfamiliar place (combined with the yielding, woozy attention of my underslept ears) is perhaps the ideal setting for a close listen to songs I half-know. I’ve searched for the perfect listening environment for a really long time, and everything has its pitfalls: driving produces road noise; working out, gym noise; sitting in a room and just listening is often difficult to do, given that I am of the Facebook Generation and must be quadruple-multitasking at all times. Exploring, particularly while my brain is 60% its normal efficacy, seems to be the way to go for the time being.
Hopefully, I return to “normal hours” soon. However, I think I’m going to keep wandering and listening—and typing up what I think. Here are some guidelines I will try to stick to. This is the “Miles Listens to Albums Manifesto”:
I will listen to one album on a night of walking, all the way through. This should be a given, but just to make sure you and I are on the same page, I’ll say it here. Albums are my favorite form of musical expression and many of my favorite artists have manipulated the format in beautiful and surprising ways.
I won’t pull any punches. I won’t say I like something just because it’s cool. I won’t say I dislike something just because it’s uncool.
Related: I think I will err on the side of the autobiographical and personal in my analyses. You can expect a lot of “This album makes me think of 9th grade” and even “This album reminds me of my ex-girlfriend.” So this is probably not your source for whether or not to buy a CD. Or maybe it is!
Perhaps most emphatically, I will strive above all else to get around and even purposefully subvert the clichés of musical criticism. An alarming amount of the things written about music in this day and age amount to masturbatory lists of unusual adjectives, or, worse, lazy (and superficial) comparisons to other artists. I cannot stand it when music is reduced to circular derivations or name-dropping “this sounds like that.” I want you to listen to what it is, not what it sounds like. I’ll try to do the same.
I will probably break all of these rules. Don’t take me too seriously and I won’t, either.
Now that we’re clear on the ground rules, here are my thoughts on Congratulations by MGMT.
To understate, a lot of art is philosophical. It has a worldview, a message, a conscience. Music, particularly popular music, on the other hand, is often relegated to the role of entertainment; when it leaves this (menial) category, it is usually seen as overstepping some kind of boundary, as if our ironic, postmodern culture has seen it all before and, bored and tired of being preached at, would rather just enjoy an album (or, far more likely, a song) as a tool. Music is often what we put on as soundtrack when we want to feel an emotion, or be delivered from that emotion. We place music in the role of cheerleader as we shoot baskets, or as background noise at a party, or we use it to get “pumped up” to do homework, or whatever. All of this is perfectly understandable; nothing can be so vain as to demand our undivided attention every time we switch it on. But I am wary of the “music as life soundtrack” outlook. We engage literature, film, and theatre on their own terms, without delegating them to the periphery, immersing ourselves in them as fully as we can in our hyperconnected internet age; why not music?
They’re two guys from New York City who, stoned in a Wesleyan dorm, supposedly as a joke, wrote some of the catchiest songs in recent memory: the half-serious rock star dream “Time to Pretend,” the ecstatically meaningless anthem “Kids,” and, my favorite of their three “hits,” the jungle-disco “Electric Feel.” All instances of canny pop songwriting, but by definition forever doomed to the cyclical and heartless purgatory of FM radio.
The duo decided they want no part of this commercial world. Anyone who listened to the second half of their debut album Oracular Spectacular could tell that there was a lot more to MGMT than their slightly wise-ass radio hits. The last five songs were replete with bizarre excursions into echo chambers and sonic alien abductions and songs called “Of Birds, Moons, and Monsters.” In other words, for the casual listener, a lot more work than “Kids.”
Congratulations is an album that demands engagement. I bought it when it came out in 2010 and listened to it a bit before moving on to other things. Returning three years later, I am surprised by how well this self-consciously experimental album hangs together. There is nothing approaching “Electric Feel” in any respect. Congratulations is capital-A Art, and I admire that.
But what is it saying?
I’ve already posited that art has philosophy; it argues, or at the very least, laconically observes and in so doing points out. To me, Congratulations is a synthesis of two ideas, each a side of the other: the ridiculousness of our digital 21st century and the corrosive effect of partyin’ too hard. Both of these concepts are supported by the not-unfamiliar notion that fame (or, apparently, accessibility) corrupts; hence, the pointed non-catchiness of basically every song.
Once we’ve gotten past unfair expectations of bubblegum synthpop, we can engage with the album. The sixth track, “Siberian Breaks,” is obviously Congratulations’ centerpiece. It’s twelve minutes long, for one thing, and comprises half a dozen sections that overlap and in some cases reappear. The liner notes, written by producer Sonic Boom, call it a “Pop Surf Opera,” and it’s hard to disagree. The second section, a strange jaunt in waltz time, lays out the album’s thesis:
Balance the books, the ledges, the loons, the disappointed look on the faces that squint at the moon.
Let’s see it with shadows enhanced, and then vote to decide who’ll advance.
Silver jet plane, making a turn, exciting the brain that expects it to crash and then burn.
It’s not the life lesson I’d’ve guessed. If you’re conscious you must be depressed, or at least cynical.
It’s the lightning-quick, Twitterific, mutating (post)modern world, viewed with a kind of resigned detachment. Although they’re now rich and famous and no doubt living the lifestyle laid out in “Time to Pretend,” although this album is trying its damndest to be uncommercial, MGMT knows they cannot truly escape the system (or, if you prefer, System). In the immediacy of the digital age,
London’s a scratch on the lens; it’s over before it begins.
They also note that they’re
nobly wasting the night, but it isn’t right.
All those rockstar parties are getting to them. There’s a pervasive feeling of alienation in this song, which is echoed in the jaded “It’s Working” and “Flash Delirium,” as well as the lonely “Someone’s Missing.” Even the heroic “Brian Eno” toils alone, handing down sage advice from his great cathedral; meanwhile, “Lady DaDa” is exposed as a frightened fallacy.
It’s hard for me to square with art that is nihilistic. I’ve learned that I am, for better or worse, essentially an optimist. This is not to say anything about the proverbial glass of water, but simply that I tend to celebrate things (i.e. films by Woody Allen, records by The Beatles) that tell me about the world’s redeeming qualities. As an important aside, I also love chaos, ugliness, howling at the moon, and the blues. Cynicism just has to earn its place with me, because it’s the easy way.
So on the surface, this album doesn’t seem like a great fit for me. Parts of Congratulations remind me of someone several cheap beers into a party, crimson cup in hand, looking at themselves and their friends and wondering why they’re still there, if they haven’t outgrown it all.
But I love Congratulations, and now I’m trying to put a finger on why. Certainly the album is masterful in its musical complexity. Its instrumentation is remarkably inventive. It’s a legitimate challenge for me to name the chord changes, which is unusual. Basically, as noise, it sounds really good. But that’s not all of what’s going on here.
I think, in the end, I like this album because it makes me think of dear, existentially-savvy friends with whom I’ve shared countless hours angsting, wondering, gazing. Congratulations is the moment late in the night when the people who set out to drink too much have accomplished their goal, leaving you to pull aside one or two semi-friends who you kind of know and talk about the Important Stuff. You can’t quite think straight and you’ve never had this conversation with these people before, but you realize it’s why you came to the party in the first place. Congratulations is the night you’ve been craving all along.