By law I am required to note Congratulations is the sophomore album by MGMT, and that many sophomore albums have been spectacular tragedies. Since MGMT received loads of critical praise, financial success, and radio airplay (all signs of impending suckage) after the release of their first album, Oracular Spectacular, the cards of history seemed stacked against them for this release. But unlike virtually every other group played on terrestrial “alternative rock” radio, MGMT have a broad understanding of music history and their place in it. This could be said to be the subject of Congratulations, an album that obliterates all the poor expectations held for it. Indeed, one track is named “Brian Eno,” and another, “Song for Dan Treacy.” With a ? and the Mysterians vibe, the song pays homage to Treacy, who is the frontman of Television Personalities, a band which could be said to hold the strongest legacy of influence upon MGMT.
Like a lot of folks, when I first heard MGMT, I searched long and hard for the sources of their sound. Though the obvious influences—Bowie, the Clash, Roxy Music—are not erroneous, I always thought there was some other band out there whose stamp of influence covered all others, like a post-divorce tattoo hiding the “I Love Ruby” written underneath. After I heard Congratulations, I would have still been unable to pin down the primordial source band but for a miraculous Pandora coincidence. On a station of mine dedicated to early Pink Floyd, Soft Machine, Focus, Nektar, and other stalwarts of epically epic psychedelic rock music, Squeeze’s “Wild Sewerage Tickles Brazil” slid into play. Mainly known for their ubiquitous pop gem, “Tempted,” Squeeze’s debut album sounds like the Clash jamming with Brian Eno. In other words, it sounds like MGMT. And yet the net of influence on Congratulations spreads wider and into unexpected places. On the tangy track “Flash Delirium,” Ben Goldwasser and Andrew VanWyngarden may be calling out to Phish when they sing, “The hot dog’s getting cold, and you’ll never be as good as the Rolling Stones.” In the same vein we have the title track. A rhinestone of a pop song, it is the 2010 version of the Grateful Dead’s “Friend of the Devil.” With a similar walk down the major scale, it is the song to put on to make everyone relax.
Early in the album are “I Found a Whistle” and “Siberian Breaks.” Here we hear where the Soft Machine, Love, and Touch sections of the influence web meet with Squeeze, who, in the end, serve convenience rather than accuracy. No one band can be said to be MGMT’s primary influence. While it is easy to see the album title and the round of applause at the end as playful, self-depreciatory jokes, perhaps the joke is on all us rock nerds, who waste our hours trolling the All Music Guide for answers to frivolous questions regarding influence and genre cross pollination. Like Ween (another duo with weird looking dudes), who also received some radio attention early in their career, MGMT have developed a knack of pulling a fast one on an audience who is prepared for it. But unlike Weezer, who also have the same ability, this invloves great albums full of creative, interesting songs. So I am now required to note congratulations are in order, and expectations are already high for junior year.