Was MGMT’s Congratulations a difficult sophomore album, or just a bad one? Three years after its release, that question is still open for debate, but the funny thing about the Brooklyn duo’s notoriously divisive 2010 record is that it doesn’t sound like the work of a band that’s trying to shake its audience. For all its indulgences, Congratulations was bound by an overriding sense of joy that made it possible to believe MGMT really did believe listeners would be as stoked about their busy ’60s psych-pop pastiches as they were. The same can’t be said of the group’s lethargic, self-titled third album, which follows Benjamin Goldwasser and Andrew VanWyngarden even deeper down the psychedelic rabbit hole. The backlash to Congratulations has only hardened the duo’s insistence that they’re not trying to make another “Kids,” and MGMT is a monument to that obstinacy, an endurance test of an album that’s seemingly unlovable by design.
At least some of the production hits the mark. The album reunites MGMT with Dave Fridmann, The Flaming Lips producer who lent the group’s debut, Oracular Spectacular, its agreeable sheen, and his booming drums are a welcome return from the ratty, smaller tones of Congratulations. But where Congratulations sprawled eagerly in all directions, giddy with inspiration (however misguided), MGMT marches languidly in place, conserving its meager ideas by stretching them out far past the point of interest. That pacing doesn’t do the pluckier songs of the album’s first half any favors, and it makes the plodding, hookless experiments of its second half nearly intolerable, especially the 15-minute block of watery, off-brand Animal Collective noodling that begins with “A Good Sadness” and ends with “I Love You Too, Death.”
There’s no reward for making it over that hump. After the cheap “Yellow Submarine” homage “Plenty Of Girls In The Sea,” the record closes limply with “An Orphan Of Fortune,” another five minutes of hazy, shapeless improvising. MGMT is cruel not only in its listlessness, but also its sheer stinginess—for a 45-minute album, there’s remarkably little here in the way of music, songwriting, innovation, or even exploration. This is a bag of potato chips that’s 80 percent air, unconvincingly trying to pass itself off as a full meal.