The dreaded sophomore album. No easy task for the young artist. After blowing away critics and fans alike with their sensational debut Oracular Spectacular in 2008, MGMT now returns with their follow-up effort Congratulations. As the saying goes, a band has an entire lifetime to write their first album and six months, maybe a year, to write their next. Beyond the creative challenge there’s also the general weirdness of overnight commercial success, particularly for younger types firmly invested in the self-image and outward identity of the bohemian outsider. All of a sudden there’s mass acclaim. Limousines, groupies, sycophants swirling about. In other words precisely what MGMT fantasized about in 2008’s “Time to Pretend.” Be careful what you wish for, MGMT. Now the pressure’s on.
Of course rock is full of historical precedents when it comes to approaching the sophomore album after a smashing debut. The first option is to confirm your artistic genius and staying power by creating a second album as good or better than the first (Led Zeppelin, Joy Division, Beastie Boys). Much less desirable is the possibility of whiffing entirely and fading rapidly into obscurity (Violent Femmes). There are those who have pretty much driven themselves crazy trying to find their way after a classic debut (Axl Rose) and those who have continued to produce good work while carefully pulling back from the precipice of mainstream rock stardom (Pearl Jam). And then there’s the Liz Phair approach. After provoking an avalanche of critical acclaim with her debut opus Exile in Guyville in 1993 (Pitchfork ranks it is as the fifth best album of the decade), Phair said of her 1994 follow-up Whip-Smart, “I made sure it wasn’t shitty, but I didn’t worry about whether it was, like, A+.”
This seems, in a nutshell, to be the approach that MGMT has applied to their own follow-up effort. There’s nothing here as boldly original and exciting as Oracular Spectacular’s “Time to Pretend,” “Kids” or even “Electric Feel.” Rather, Congratulations is at times appealingly understated and at other times maybe a bit underwhelming. Still, there’s nothing here that changes the overall impression of MGMT as one of the better young bands of their generation. It’s just that the pleasures of Congratulations are a little less ecstatic, a little more subtle, and, yes, a little less frequent than those of Oracular Spectacular. Cases in point: “It’s Working” and “Someone’s Missing,” neither of which grabs you from the beginning but both of which build up to some unexpected and sneaky-good flourishes.
In other cases MGMT seem to be quoting even more directly from their influences than they did on album one, admittedly a troubling trend. On “Brian Eno” they come right out and name a song after one of their musical idols. Several other songs on the album might well have been named after artists who obviously inspired them as well. “Lady Dada’s Nightmare” could have been called “Floydian Instrumental Interlude.” At times MGMT even acknowledge their influences with winking lyrical references. “Flash Delirium” is pure Bowie and when Andrew VanWyngarden sings: “sue the spiders,” a nod to Ziggy and the Spiders from Mars, it seems more likely that the spiders would sue MGMT for robbing their musical schtick. Still, if “Flash Delirium” is a Bowie rip off, it’s a damn good one, as in, like, it’s almost as good as Bowie. That’s more than enough to make it the best song on the album.
The 12 minute plus “Siberian Breaks,” on the other hand, is a bit on the meandering side, and probably not quite as epic as the band might have intended. It’s a twisting, turning ride leaning at one point in the direction of seventies folk-rock with a shout-out to the Mamas and Papas followed by a Leonard Cohen tribute so dead-on as to border on imitation (“Oh Marianne pass the joint,” sings VanWyngarden). It’s also here where the band begins to deal with the ramifications of their overnight success: “Wide open arms can feel so cold/And you can sit beside me and tell me what it’s worth/But I hope I die before I get sold.” But it’s with the mellow groove of the title track that closes the album where VanWyngarden really lays it out: “It’s hardly sink or swim/When all is well if the ticket sells/Out with a whimper/It’s not a blaze of glory/You look down from your temple/And people endeavor to make it a story.” So maybe MGMT’s sophomore effort isn’t a blaze of glory, but nobody’s suggesting they vacate the temple just yet.