Before: pop songs for teens
After: Psychedelic rock
The world of pop music is a fickle place in which to work: One day, your audience demands this, but they next day they insist on having that. Artists face a constant struggle between staying true to their musical vision by making content that has an integrity they are proud of, and conforming to the varying wants of the mainstream crowd by sanitizing their style to rake in the big bucks.
Early on, MGMT was lucky. Their first album, 2007’s “Oracular Spectacular,” was full of mega-hits like “Electric Feel,” “Kids” and “Time to Pretend” that were both poppy enough to garner considerable radio attention and truly an unfiltered outpouring of band members Benjamin Goldwasser and Andrew VanWyngarden at their finest.
Ideally, at least in the eyes of the pair’s agents, marketing executives and other corporate players in their circle, they would have pumped out another album in the next year or two in the same vein as their first to billow the fire and keep the eyes of the music world on them.
The problem with this is that the poppy electronic music Goldwasser and VanWyngarden were making just happened to coincide with what the public wanted at the time. By no means were they a product of the cookie cutter pop machine; for a brief minute, they were in the overlap of the Venn diagram that represents their interests and the world’s musical wants.
So they took as long as they felt they needed and made their next album the exact way they wanted to, which meant they took until 2010 and came out with “Congratulations,” a more psychedelic offering influenced more by ’60s psychedelic music and surf rock, which was not as appreciated by the general public.
In fact, listeners felt somewhat betrayed: Why would MGMT stop pumping out the great pop music that’s a little bit different that we love so much? It was good and it was distinctively “them,” so where’s the issue?
As mentioned, Goldwasser and VanWyngarden are free spirits. They made music for themselves, and others happened to like it. Then they made more music, and it wasn’t liked quite as much. It still drew a crowd, but more on the indie spectrum.
Their career trajectory is like the inverse of many indie bands: start out with a unique sound that gets a small-but-loyal fan base, then give in to the trappings of corporate pressure and fame-seeking, “clean up” their sound and make some more money.
To complete the Benjamin Button-like nature of their career, they even named their most recent album “MGMT,” even though self-titling a record is usually done on their first release. The album has a weirdness that surpasses anything the group has put out so far.
The 10-song collection feels like the work of a young band who hasn’t yet learned their lesson and is still making the oddball experimental music they started with. Rather, it is the product of a duo who have learned their lesson, which is that as long as you are doing what you are doing well, the unique expression of musical risk-taking will find an audience that appreciates it.
If “Your Life is a Lie” seems like a weird single, that’s because it is, but it’s also the closest thing on the album to a single. The 2-minute track, in the context of the album, feels more like a strange chanted interlude that a full-fledged song. It stays in the same sonic space the whole time, and although it sounds exactly like MGMT, it doesn’t belong on the radio.
Perhaps the single is a message: “This is us, we’re still doing us, and it’s different than what you might want or expect. If you don’t like it, that’s fine, but we’re still around, so feel free to listen if you so choose.”
On the other hand, the lead single “Alien Days,” serves as an easier transition from the “classic” MGMT sound to their current incarnation. The structure and instrumentation are more traditional than anything else on the record, but the flowing psychedelic cut will likely receive better ratings on Pitchfork than it will in Rolling Stone.
Power to MGMT for being the version of themselves they want to be. Often, a few albums in, a band can lose track of why they decided to make music in the first place, but MGMT continues to be the band they want to be, whether you like it or not.
2. Yeasayer – Fragrant World, the curiously titled album from Yeasayer, sounds basically like its predecessor, 2010′s Odd Blood, and thus nothing like the band’s debut, 2007′s All Hour Cymbals. Given the acclaim that their debut received, it’s curious and rather disappointing that Yeasayer have moved away from its wide-eyed eclecticism toward a more conventional sound. Still, they’re hardly the first band to change the sound that brought them to the public’s attention — we’ve put together a selection for your reading delectation after the jump.
Before: Strange world music-influenced eclecticism
After: Identikit Brooklyn “hey, look, we have synths!” stuff
So, yeah, Yeasayer: what happened? Their debut album, 2007′s All-Hour Cymbals, wasn’t for everyone, but it was a pretty fascinating beast: full of strange African rhythms, choirs, and god knows what else. There was a certain ingenuousness to it, like a bunch of kids discovering a heap of music in a hitherto unexplored corner of a record store and deciding to make everything they heard into an album. Since then, though, they’ve settled into making the sort of mildly psychedelic synthpop that it seems compulsory to make if you live in Brooklyn. Sigh.
3. Depeche Mode
Before: Slap-happy, mildly camp synthpop
After: Portentous stadium rock
Perhaps the best example of this phenomenon, Depeche Mode were already well-established as ’80s dancefloor staples (“Just Can’t Get Enough,” etc. etc.) by the time Dave Gahan decided at the end of the ’80s that he wanted to be a rock star. The result was two of the finest albums of the band’s career — Violator and Songs of Faith and Devotion — and Gahan’s near-death from a heroin/cocaine overdose.
4. Pink Floyd
Before: Winsome psychedelic noodlings
After: Portentous stadium rock
We guess that if you somehow went back in time and played ’70s Floyd to a ’60s Floyd fan, they’d have refused to believe it was the same band (if they could actually string a coherent sentence together, that is). The band’s great stylistic shift coincided with the departure of Syd Barrett for la-la land, and the consequent rise of Roger Waters to songwriting prominence. By the mid-’70s, Waters was in complete control and the band was making weighty concept records that sold gazillions of copies and sounded absolutely nothing like The Piper at the Gates of Dawn. We rather prefer Waters-era Floyd, but it’s ultimately a matter of taste.
5. The Horrors
Before: Misfits cover band
After: Shoegaze devotees
The big shock with The Horrors’ 2009 album Primary Colours wasn’t that it was so different from its predecessor — it’s that it was so good. After all, the band’s first album, 2007′s Strange House, was largely clichéd sub-Misfits horror pop, and while it did well enough, charting in the band’s native UK and getting the NME all hot under the collar, it hinted at nothing remotely interesting in the band’s future. Happily, that all changed with Primary Colours, which was a fine piece of neo-shoegaze that deserved all the acclaim it got.
Before: Best guitar band of the ’90s
After: Warp devotees
And, of course, speaking of bands who transcended relatively uninspiring records, there’s Radiohead, who’ve undergone at least two great stylistic shifts. The OK Computer to Kid A transition was the more relevant one in this context, since the band were already global megastars at the time they decided that actually they’d rather make experimental electronica than experimental guitar music. The decision made for a legion of bewildered fans, but a decade on, Kid A and Amnesiac stand up rather well indeed.
7. The Clash
Before: Angry left-wing punks
After: Angry left-wing musical visionaries
The Clash and Give ‘Em Enough Rope established the Clash firmly in the top tier of first-wave UK punk bands, but their next two records — London Calling and Sandinista! — proved that they were far more interesting than that. The latter was perhaps too sprawling and ambitious for its own good, but the former remains an enduring masterpiece, a gleeful romp through the history of rock ‘n’ roll that also serves as conclusive proof that a band can (and should) continue evolving.
8. Best Coast
Before: Most excellent psych weirdness
After: Sub-girl group Cali tedium
Come back, Pocahaunted! All is forgiven!
Before: Cheesy pop and child stardom
After: Hyper-cool electropop and angular haircuts
A curious fact about Robyn: for all the acclaim received by the various Body Talk releases and her 2005 self-titled record, her best-selling US album remains 1995′s Robyn Is Here, which was released in her native Sweden when she was 16 and contains two US top 10 hits (“Do You Know (What it Takes)” and “Show Me Love”). There are others who’ve reinvented themselves after child stardom — see also Björk, Alanis Morrissette, etc. — but Robyn is probably the one who enjoyed the greatest fame the first time around, which makes her reinvention all the more remarkable.
10. Nick Cave
Before: The Devil incarnate
After: Suit-wearing piano balladeer
Even in his most hell-raising days, Nick Cave had a way with a love song, so perhaps the somber, restrained piano ballads of The Boatman’s Call shouldn’t have come as a great surprise. Still, his 1997 masterpiece was quite the stylistic shift from its predecessor — the gleefully malevolent Murder Ballads — and it was a resounding success. It also meant for a couple more albums of diminishing returns on the same idea, but happily, he’s regained his old fire of late, even if we’re not as big fans of Grinderman as everyone seems to think we should be.