Pop Culture

Album Review: MGMT, ‘Loss of Life’

When you hear that MGMT are back with their first album in six years, one that’s supposedly more optimistic than 2018’s doomy yet oddly danceable Little Dark Age, you’d guess they’d have come up with a different title than Loss of Life. “I wish I was joking,” Andrew VanWyngarden sings on the second to last track, not at all oblivious to the acronym for the record – one that’s pointedly more philosophical and existential than anything the duo, now officially indie after leaving longtime label Columbia Records, have ever put out. Recording the album in 2021 and 2022, VanWyngarden and Ben Goldwasser were anything but impervious to the proliferation of apocalyptic art in the wake of the pandemic, and they almost responded in their own irreverent way with a novelty song called ‘Oh No Corona’, which their management advised against releasing. “I’m kind of into being home” is another lyric on ‘I Wish I Was Joking’, but Loss of Life isn’t MGMT’s upbeat dance record about strange, life-altering events, nor does it double down on the somber mood of Little Dark Age, whose title track unexpectedly reached TikTok virality. But in searching for greater meaning amidst the darkness, they deliver some of the richest and most emotionally potent material of their storied career.

With the new album, MGMT manage to cross the youthful naivety and exploratory tendencies that marked their early albums with the pervasive anxiety and newly streamlined sound of Little Dark Age. That sounds like a lot, and if you’ve only heard the singles, perhaps hyperbolic. Most of the advance tracks – with the exception of ‘Bubblegum Dog’, which originated in the previous album’s sessions and is a little wonkier – point to a warm, delicate palette, which does permeate the album but varies significantly in scale and sentiment. On ‘Mother Nature’, the album’s first proper song, the singer makes a case for holding onto the idea of love by contrasting fantastical language (“open castle gates and let me go inside”) with mundane activities like throwing out the trash, anticipating the listener’s skepticism: “You know what comes right after the dark/ But I understand your hesitation.” ‘Nothing to Declare’ takes a more serene approach, finding freedom in the absence of self-definition, of purpose for one’s wandering.

What comes after the dark isn’t as obvious as it sounds, and in that wandering, MGMT sound both settled and unburdened. This allows them to lean back into their roots, or reconcile them – the absurdism and genre-hopping of their early performances, the earnestness of the classic rock they’d cover in college. If anything, the template of Loss of Life is more faithful to the definition of classic rock that congeals when you listen to the radio as opposed to the obsessive classification of online music nerdom, so the ‘90s alt-rock influences of ‘Mother Nature’ and ‘Bubblegum Dog’ flow into the cinematic soft rock of ‘People in the Streets’ and the power balladry of ‘Dancing in Babylon’, a collaboration with Christine and the Queens that would have fit snugly in his latest opus, unabashedly sentimental and slightly off-kilter in its romantic declarations.

With past collaborators Patrick Wimberly and Dave Fridmann back into the fold, there’s a sense of familiarity here, but the group also widen their creative circle in ways that foster their eccentric impulses and prevents this from being dubbed their “most accessible” record. One prominent contributor is Oneohtrix Point Never (aka Daniel Lopatin), whose additional production is surely responsible for at least some of the twitchy electronics of ‘Dancing in Babylon’, but whose influence – his tendency to warp and stretch out songs into journeys that feel nostalgic yet abstract – is more pronounced on the two tracks he co-produced, which also represent the album’s opposite sides. Like many of the tracks on the album, ‘Phradie’s Song’ presumably started on acoustic guitar, and while its tender, lullaby-like qualities are preserved, it’s the dreaminess that swells in its dramatic conclusion; the closing title track, on the other hand, expands in unpredictable ways that justify the lyric “undressing cosmic knots.” On the epic ‘Nothing Changes’, which goes far as to reference their  immortal hit ‘Time to Pretend’, VanWyngarden sings, “If I could change/ Then I wouldn’t be here.” MGMT are still here, of course, and they keep changing – a fact as natural as it is a little magic.

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