Kierkegaard once spoke of how the world was going to end. A fire was going to erupt in a theater, but when the clown comes onstage to warn the audience, pleasantly entertained, they cheer him on, laughing louder the more desperate he tries to warn them. Until it’s too late.
It’s not hard to feel a kind of resemblance with this audience, as the thirst for mass entertainment seems to grow each day, while our curiosity to see beyond it dissolves for the immediate pleasure of escaping our own problems.
When MGMT, the pop duo of Andrew VanWyngarden and Ben Goldwasser, released their first album Oracular Spectacular, they approached this problem ironically: making music you can dance to, only to realize singing along how depressing it was. “Kids,” one of the most electrifying singles ever released, touches on the pain of growing up while “Time to Pretend” is exactly what it sounds like, a lament of the superficiality it takes just to fit in with everyone else. The point was simple: if we’re all going to go in flames, we might as well party.
The intense fun the group provided, however, was also responsible for their departure from relevance. Once the ecstasy wears off, what is there left to do? So they spent the next decade of albums diving into the heaviness, but without bringing any of the comfort along with it, which unsurprisingly alienated the audience that once listened to them religiously.
On their newest album, Little Dark Age (LDA), they go back to their roots, but not how you might expect. You can still dance to it, but the darkness is too potent to ignore, as if the collective unconscious of listeners was repressed so much that it had to storm back eventually. Continuing the theme of Father John Misty’s Pure Comedy and Kendrick Lamar’s Damn, the problem of surviving in 2018 for MGMT isn’t about left wing vs right wing, success vs failure, or even good overcoming bad. It’s about dealing with boredom and how far we’re willing to go to get rid of it.
While nihilistic despair is nothing new in the music world, LDA is able to present it in ways unique to anything that’s been done before. It’s not coming from a place of preachy arrogance nor is it a fetishizing of the artist’s own sadness. Instead, MGMT commits to a subtler approach, and like a mirror, adds nothing to what we already know, but reflects what we often try to forget.
If we return to the Kierkegaardian clown analogy, we might think of the album as showing the tragic process of laughing off imminent danger in front of us. A striking example of this is the song “Tslamp” (Time spent looking at my phone), which is not so much about phone addiction, but more about its implications. As one of the many ways we try to control the universe, the narrator ignores true human feelings, and sacrifices the spontaneity that makes life interesting for the comforting monotony of meaningless symbols on a bright rectangular screen.
The problem of control is nothing new to the Western world which has historically, in one way or another, obsessively clung onto the belief of needing to be saved, which has recently manifested itself into a rat race to the top. We want the coolest job, the highest status, and the fanciest clothes, spending the majority of our time plotting how to get there, while anxiously anticipating losing whatever we think we have. But as LDA shows, we’re now reaching a point of restless fatigue. Even with limitless technological innovation and material wealth at our disposal, we don’t know ourselves, which makes chasing “the good life” as futile as dragging your feet through wet cement.
As pop musicians, MGMT’s goal is not to convey the whole messy problem, but to instead indulge in the dark humour this kind of futility provides. “When You Die” mocks the half-baked seriousness of our intellectual climate and the constant clash of abstract ideals in the face of the temporality of life. As they nonchalantly sing, when the inevitable time comes, “words won’t do anything.”
The most significant part of the album, however, is left to the end. While there might be millions of ways to satirize being a human in 2018, it’s a lot harder to think about the more complex question of how to actually do it. “When You’re Small” sets to dispel the myth that external validation of any kind can sooth inner turmoil and vouches for the quieter life instead, proposing that “when you’re small you don’t have very far to fall/You feel like you belong.”
But the album doesn’t end there and sets out on what might seem like an unexpected path, as the introspective closer “Hand It Over” somberly contemplates how to get through our days. While lifestyle changes like meditating, tuning out social media and vowing to spend less money might be healthy ways to alleviate the pain, by themselves, they are still distractions as band-aid repairs to a sinking ship. The song instead embraces the notion that accepting despair might be what actually leads to hope. Once we give up the fight to control everything, we can finally relax, realize that there was nothing to fight for in the first place, and as Nagarjuna phrased it, “Since all is empty, all is possible.”