Music News & Reviews

MGMT takes a detour on road to commercial success

Call it reserved madness, subtle delirium, the Mad Hatter as played by David Bowie on Xanax. After the relatively joyous freakout of 2007's Oracular Spectacular, including loopy hits Time to Pretend and Kids Brooklyn, the art-pop outfit MGMT has gone out of its way to keep obvious, commercial fun out of their follow-up, the newly released Congratulations.

That doesn't mean there's no wiggy dance silliness to be had on the nine new tracks. It's just that the Grammy-winning quintet, but mostly oddballs Andrew VanWyngarden and Ben Goldwasser, has no desire to be modern chart-toppers, no matter the millions of giddy new fans clamoring for original pop. If it happens, it happens. In the meantime, try the peyote cupcakes; they're divine.

MGMT could be huge, but look no further than the prickly baroque instrumental Lady Dada's Nightmare to understand the mission statement. Instead of challenging the fame-ravenous Ms. Poker Face with a banger of its own, the band dilutes Lady Gaga's ubiquity with a sonic meltdown, a time-out for the sweaty masses.

Maybe one day MGMT will fight for Billboard superiority, but not now. Even so, Congratulations debuted at No. 2 this week on Billboard's Hot 200 list, bested only by Justin Bieber.

The buzz behind the new album is that MGMT refused to give its record label, mighty Columbia, any singles to release. In fact, the original plan for Congratulations was to offer it all as a free download. Maybe that's because the influences range from psycho-circus '60s trippery (It's Working) to layered Pet Sounds lushness (the 12-minute Siberian Breaks, which is as lovely as it is bizarre).

It gets weirder: There's a "fake flute" on Flash Delirium that sounds straight out of H.R. Pufnstuf; couple that with the lyric "Time's tingling spines/ Attaching hands to the floor/ The rosy-tinted flash/ The hot dog's getting cold" and you know what you're in for. Other instruments on the album, produced by avant-guitarist Sonic Boom, include the Gakken SX-150 and the "first documented use of the EMT 250 reverb 'glitch.'" Wow.

Congratulations almost feels like a one-off, a side excursion for all the ideas running through the band's big, throbby brain. Columbia probably wanted a song to pair with a car commercial. MGMT would prefer you cool the engine and ponder some.