Bear with me while I stretch a comparison of two bands that sound nothing alike and are separated by a couple of decades. If you can ignore those two things, then MGMT and Nirvana are pretty similar. Kinda sorta. Both had massive fluke hits that served as signposts for the sharp turns mainstream pop music took after those surprising successes. Both bands tried to distance themselves from those hits.
Nirvana's "Nevermind" came out in '91, "The Year Punk Broke," as it's called in the documentary of that title. A few decades of underground music led to that pop culture breakout moment, and the music industry reinvented itself in reaction to the success of "Smells Like Teen Spirit." After that, bands like Bush and Silverchair were nominally "alternative," even though by that point this alternative to mainstream rock had become the dominant force on MTV and radio.
MGMT's 2007 debut "Oracular Spectacular" obviously isn't the same sort of watershed pop culture moment, but it's about as close as rock music has gotten to replicating it in the past 20 years. And this is during a time when fluke hits are increasingly rare, to the point where the machinery that churns out hits has become entertainment in and of itself (see: "The Voice," "American Idol").
Dancey and sideways synth-pop hits like "Kids," "Time to Pretend" and "Electric Feel" turned MGMT's debut album into an international chart-topper. Now in that wake, bands like Imagine Dragons and fun. are branded "indie," even though they're both signed to major record labels. MGMT followed that album with "Congratulations," a polarizing record in which the band went out of its way to prove that the music it makes is weirder than that of the contemporaries with which its grouped.
Nirvana's Kurt Cobain famously struggled with reconciling rock stardom with an idea of artistic purity championed by a punk scene. He responded by releasing the willfully difficult "In Utero," an album whose commercial success is almost more surprising than its predecessor's. While "Congratulations" doesn't share "In Utero's" abrasive kiss-off, it is a psyche-rock record whose intention seems equally designed to alienate a sizable chunk of its audience.
On last year's self-titled album, MGMT doubled down on the weirdness, but where "Congratulations" shared DNA with the psyche-rock bands of the '60s, the second half of "MGMT" is a lot more futuristic. There are sound-sculpture pieces like "I Love You Too, Death" and the barely controlled cacophony of "Plenty of Girls in the Sea," which still somehow maintains the air of a pop song. And if there's an overarching message on "MGMT," it's that the MGMT on "Oracular Spectacular" probably isn't coming back.
While there unfortunately isn't enough Nirvana to stretch the comparison even further past its breaking point, there's plenty of precedent in bands like Radiohead and the Flaming Lips -- groups that took the goodwill garnered from fluke hits and used it to push themselves into much more challenging territory. And if that means losing some listeners along the way, MGMT has made known that it isn't afraid to test your threshold for weird pop songs.
By Matt Sullivan
Daily News correspondent