MGMT | Live review

Heaven, London
MGMT have swapped pastiche for sincerity, but fears of a move to pop's darker side prove unfounded

The return of MGMT coincides with a warm night, humid with spring promise. Congratulations, their forthcoming album, is one of the most anticipated releases of 2010, and MGMT's first UK date introducing it thrums with excitement, rumour and counter-rumour.

Two years ago, the band's debut, Oracular Spectacular, spawned three omnipresent singles, "Time to Pretend", "Kids" and "Electric Feel", gathering tribes of fans to MGMT's feet. The gangs of girls, dressed a bit like MGMT on the cover of Oracular – Adam Ant gone Lord of the Flies, roughly – may have to rethink their look, however. Last week's NME finds Andrew VanWyngarden photographed like the Rolling Stone Brian Jones on a particularly dapper day. The smart tailoring carries on onstage, as least as far as the core MGMT duo of VanWyngarden (mod mop, long jacket) and Ben Goldwasser (mooping keyboards, waistcoat) are concerned. The rest of the band still sport the slacker long-hair look, which clashes with the vintage anglophile psychedelics embraced by the new songs. The online whisper has it that no singles will be released from this record, although a new song called "Flesh Delirium" is loose on the net. Congratulations is, apparently, an uncommercial undertaking; a hymn to MGMT's uncompromising musical heroes.

They open tonight with one perky new artpop song, "Brian Eno" – presumably lauding his reputation as one of music's most totemic space cadets rather than his latterday role as midwife to Coldplay and U2 albums. Later, there will be "Song for Dan Treacy", of cult British indie band the Television Personalties. They would have been the support act tonight – had Treacy (British indie's longest-serving wild card) turned up. Hilariously, "Dan Treacy" sounds like a lost Libertines song. It is a universal truth of gig-going that a band's new material will be greeted with polite semi-approval, but there is a great deal of bemused talking at the back. "What time is it?" hollers a heckler, insinuating that it might just be "Time to Pretend".

Instead of cooking up a few more anthems in which the Flaming Lips' subterranean weirdness would be given a 21st-century commercial sheen, MGMT recorded Congratulations in the company of Pete "Sonic Boom" Kember, who used to be in heady drone kings Spaceman 3. On backing vocals, Jennifer Herrema of Royal Trux, less a band than a whole load of avant-rock attitude.

"I've got a pistol, it's aimed at your heart," runs a lyric from "I Found a Whistle", one unequivocally great new MGMT song. The understanding is that, with this album, MGMT are gleefully cocking a gun at their foot. "This is the title track of our new album, 'Doomed to Obscurity'," laughs VanWyngarden, introducing "Congratulations".

They never wanted to be famous, it transpires. They were just kidding when they wrote their brilliant pastiches of pop songs, satirising stardom ("Time to Pretend") and sexy soul ("Electric Feel"). It was all something of a prank that got out of hand, and now MGMT have made a record that sincerely reflects their musical influences. Oh, to have been a fly on the wall at that meeting with the record company.

At least, this is the album-spiel. In truth, the new songs are hardly epic drone wig-outs bristling with danger. They are sweet, thoughtful niblets of psychedelic pop that play VanWyngarten's mostly acoustic guitar off against keyboards and percussion. Catchy, but in a much more spindly way than the songs on Oracular. It is not the follow-up their accountant might have wished for, but rumours of MGMT's loss down a rabbit-hole have been greatly exaggerated.

Were they in full-blown recant-and-regroup mode, Goldwasser and VanWyngarden would have forced their bandmates to get hip with the new look, and rearranged the old songs to boot. But tunes like "Weekend Wars" and "The Youth" sound just like everyone remembers them. And when "Time to Pretend" comes in the encore, Goldwasser and VanWyngarden grin their way through its multiple ironies. They don't play "Kids", however much the crowd chant for it at the end.

In the past, MGMT have been frustrating live, in part because even they grew tired of being insincere by the end of the Oracular campaign. By contrast, tonight, VanWyngarden says, "I hope you liked the new songs," almost shyly, then follows it with "Did you like the new songs?"

He sounds like a man who needs the approval of his fans just as much as he craves the company of his underground heroes.


Kitty Empire

The GuardianTramp

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