It starts out happily enough, with tousle-haired misanthrope Andrew Van Wyngarden stomping downstairs at his San Francisco hotel in vintage Doc Martens, his shirttail hanging out of his baggy pants, declaring that he's hungry and ready for lunch. Soon, his dapper dress-suited cohort Ben Goldwasser quietly saunters up to join him, his shirt buttoned to the collar, the finest of Italian suede shoes adorning his feet. The "Odd Couple" contrast couldn't be any sharper — an outgoing surfer/stoner type coupled with a reserved, bespectacled scholarly sort. But these two somehow comprise the core of the surreal New York outfit MGMT, who literally wowed the world with their Oracular Spectacular 2008 debut.
But as soon as the Grammy-nominated duo decamps to a local seafood joint, then orders, things turn dark pretty quick. The musicians believe that they've crafted a futuristic magnum opus with their new sophomore set, Congratulations, which features such oddities as an ode to "Brian Eno"; a punky tribute to Television Personalities bandleader, "Song for Dan Treacy"; a minstrel-folky waltz, "I Found a Whistle"; the ethereal instrumental "Lady Dada's Nightmare"; and the prog-rocking 12-minute centerpiece "Siberian Breaks." Critics, however, haven't completely agreed. Caveat emptor, reviews warned, to any fan expecting sunny neo-psychedelic "Oracular" hits like "Kids" and "Time to Pretend." The singles, they say, just aren't there.
Keyboardist Goldwasser isn't happy: "Everyone in France seems to be on board with Congratulations, but that's about it," he notes, drily. "They don't need anything explained to them." He believes MGMT is doing exactly what it should, pushing the creative parameters and pleasing itself, not the audience, first. "And isn't that what all art is supposed to do?"
And rightly so, especially for a duo that studied under avant-garde jazz artist Anthony Braxton, who's famous for using diagrams to illustrate his complicated, weird-signature pieces. Congratulations' title track perfectly sums things up, reckons VanWyngarden. "It's almost like a continuation of "Handshake" from our last album – it's looking back at all the craziness that's happened, so it's a little cynical and like 'So what now?' It's pretty dark, and it's us trying to deal with all this craziness that's going on around us."
Did MGMT sculpt an album specifically designed to ditch all their bandwagon jumpers? Not at all, says VanWyngarden — they'd earned some artistic credit with Oracular, and they simply cashed it in by hiring Spacemen 3 cult hero Pete "Sonic Boom" Kember to produce. "And it was pretty surreal when we were in Malibu, recording the album — we rented a house in a canyon in Malibu, brought in all this equipment and set up a studio in this house. And all our friends would come out to visit, and it was kinda like this 'crazy vibe,' as they say in California." VanWyngarden even took up surfing, which accounts for underground artist Anthony Ausgang's wave-riding, hang-10 feline cartoon on the new album cover.
The MGMT lads believe they'll ultimately be vindicated in the annals of music history. "It just might take some time for people to see and hear what we've done here," Goldwasser concludes. "But I think our true fans will eventually get it."