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Courtesy of Columbia Records

February 14, 2018

SWAN | The Collective Anxiety on Little Dark Age

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Last week, MGMT released Little Dark Age, the duo’s fourth studio album. Admittedly, I haven’t listened to much of MGMT beyond their hits from last decade like “Kids” or “Electric Feel,” but nevertheless I really enjoyed listening to Little Dark Age. The album appears to have received generally positive reviews, with most critics asserting that Little Dark Age is a welcome return to MGMT’s commercial-pop sound after their foray into a more experimental quality during the early 2010s.

Little Dark Age is rather quick to convey a retro vibe, made apparent from the breach by songs like “She Works Out Too Much,” “Little Dark Age,” and “When You Die.” MGMT seems to have pulled from the vernacular of 1980s pop music, with warm, analog synthesizer tracks on essentially every piece of the album. “Little Dark Age” the lead sample from the album which was actually released back in October, contains a machinated drum beat and near monotonic vocal track, both of which bring “Safety Dance” by Men Without Hats to mind. “When You Die” contains a twangy guitar riff that would sound more at home on a Smiths album than a musical work produced in 2018.

One might contend that this style is merely idiomatic of indie music created in the 21st century. However, MGMT was doing this over 10 years ago. Tame Impala harnessed a similar sound on Currents back in 2015. Even LCD Soundsystem has developed a version of this sound in their work over the past several years, with the long goodbye serving as a fine example. However, I would argue that this instrumentation is a direct reference to the aforementioned era when synth-charged New Wave groups reigned supreme.

While all of these examples are clever and indeed original in various ways, they may also double as historically informed performances of old-fashioned creative norms. And damn does it make me feel nostalgic.

I’d like to take a personal and somewhat rambling digression. My feelings of nostalgia are certainly ironic and even unwarranted, as I was not alive and listening to music during the 1980s (Andrew VanWyngarden and Ben Goldwasser couldn’t have been particularly cognizant of relative musical trends during their brief time spent in the 80s, either). Yet, I’ve always been one to glorify various pasts which I did not experience directly.

In late 2016, at the start of my sophomore year (a formative time indeed), I began spending a lot of time listening to bands like the Talking Heads and New Order. At the same time, Stranger Things became really popular among my own generation, and suddenly I was drawn into an internal obsession with some vague notion of a 1980s aesthetic. In November of that same year, Donald Trump was elected president and, politics completely aside, the newly awoken turmoil among all of my peers only coerced me further into my own head. Now, however, it’s been a year or so, and, with the help of MGMT, I’m ready to reflect.

Is nostalgia, as a rhetorical device in music, really an object of aesthetic virtue? Or is it nothing more than just a beautiful, dreamy gimmick? Mark Ronson provided an answer in a TED talk he gave back in 2014, which was about sampling in hip-hop music and how hip-hop from the late 1990s blatantly sampled famous 1980s tunes. He states “[these records] borrowed from an era that was too steeped in its own connotation. You can’t just hijack nostalgia wholesale. It leaves the listener feeling sickly.” So, the answer to the question I posed above is that it depends, at least according to Mark Ronson, who is no stranger to employing nostalgia in his works (think of “Uptown Funk”). If earlier norms are merely referenced and combined with relevant lyrical themes, then perhaps the listener is left feeling less sickly and more inspired.

Well what role does nostalgia really play in our little dark age? It’s pretty and makes for some intriguing creative works, but nostalgia primarily acts to quell our collective anxiety about the present. Many of MGMT’s themes from their new album directly deal with a despondency brought about by failing relationships and not-so-subtle social media addictions (“TSLAMP”). The musical attributes of Little Dark Age create for us a peaceful dreamscape where we can all go to enjoy some blissful ignorance, at least for a little while.

Nick Swan is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at nswan@cornellun.com His column Swan Song runs alternate Thursdays this semester.