By Jacob Katel
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The story of MGMT's overnight success might seem like a teenage daydream come true. And in some ways, the Brooklyn-based band's ascent to the top of the indie heap was unnaturally quick. Just consider the fact that Ben Goldwasser and Andrew VanWyngarden embarked on this pet project in 2005 with no serious expectations of massive triumph, coming together at Wesleyan University over nothing more than a shared love of music. And only three years later, the pair had signed to Columbia Records, released a debut record so insanely buzzed it would make Lindsay Lohan's weekend binges jealous, and amassed all sorts of critical acclaim from major music tastemakers such as Billboard, Rolling Stone, Spin, NME, and the BBC. Then, as if being regaled with titles like "Artist to Watch" wasn't enough, Goldwasser and VanWyngarden nabbed a few Grammy nods for Best New Artist and Best Pop Performance by a Duo or Group With Vocals.
Yet a meteoric rise to fame wasn't the sort of thing these two actively sought. "There was a point where it felt a little too instantaneous, kind of flavor of the month," Goldwasser says during a break from the band's recent European tour.
"I think, at this point, we're mostly happy we made it through the initial phase of crazy hype," he continues. "People understand that we're a band that wants to keep evolving, and we're not interested in immediate success."
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And certainly, MGMT has evolved. For one, the crew has learned to handle the stage. "Our live show didn't have the best reputation a few years ago. And I think we were still learning how to do it," Goldwasser admits. "At this point, I think we're all really confident with what we're doing live. But when you come to our show, we're still not jumping around onstage, doing theatrical [stuff]. And we're not wearing crazy costumes. We're just playing the songs live. But it's important to mention we are doing everything live."
Another obvious indicator of MGMT's continued evolution is the band's most recent record. For casual fans who picked up the duo's breakthrough 2008 major-label debut, Oracular Spectacular, just so they could throw "Time to Pretend," "Kids," and "Electric Feel" on repeat, this year's followup, Congratulations, might've been a disappointment. In some ways, the new disc is a 12-track trip into studied pop schizophrenia. But if listeners didn't know which song to call their favorite, it wasn't a willful act of artistic sabotage or an insane plot to release an album without a single, as was controversially parroted throughout the blogosphere.
"I think that it ended up being blown up out of proportion," Goldwasser says. "Sort of like an oversimplification. The whole singles thing was not really something we said. It was like a misquote that got turned into a big deal."
He explains, "When we were writing the album, we weren't thinking of it in terms of, like, all right, we have to write a song that's going to top 'Time to Pretend' or 'Kids' or 'Electric Feel.' We were just writing songs. And when we finished, we ended up with an album that didn't have a particular song that we felt was a lead-off single."
Furthermore, Goldwasser contends that Congratulations was designed as a complete album, meant to be absorbed in its entirety.
"We ended up releasing a couple of songs as singles," he allows. "For us, we're not really obsessed with making singles. But at the same time, we wanted to be able to make some videos, and we've had some really cool remixes done for some of the songs."
Still, even if MGMT hadn't released a few singles or made cool videos for tracks such as "It's Working" and the insanely cinematic title track, one listen to Congratulations reveals the duo is on an entirely different level. The band has taken the shimmering, resplendent psychedelic pop that earned it so much praise on Oracular Spectacular and polished that sound to a fine glow. But beyond just perfecting its sonic trademarks, the outfit has also stepped well outside the already-wide musical boundaries it had previously established for itself, taking on ambitious aesthetic tasks and challenging the listener with bold song statements such as the epic, 13-minute "Siberian Breaks" and the oscillating builds and lulls of "Flash Delirium."
Plus, let's face it: There's something to be said for the kind of balls it takes to say, "Screw what worked for us last time," and totally commit to what you're doing now.
"I mean, [Oracular Spectacular] was kind of a mixture of some older stuff and newer stuff," Goldwasser explains. "And we were happy with that album. But since some of those songs were written more than five years apart from each other, we didn't feel like it was as much a statement of who we are right now. [Congratulations] felt like a really cohesive thing that actually represented exactly what we were doing at the moment."
So listeners pleased by MGMT's shape-shifting can expect it to continue. Haters be damned. Says Goldwasser: "I don't think we're really trying to refine our style. We're never going to really find one style and stick with it. It seems to me like we're a band who's going to keep changing our style forever."