After hitting it very big with their debut album and the song "Kids," MGMT dedicated themselves to making albums that would confuse and annoy people looking to hear more expansive, radio-friendly tunes like "Kids." Both 2010's Congratulations and 2013's self-titled record were informed by Ben Goldwasser and Andrew VanWyngarden's love of obscure psychedelia, oddball lyrics, and off-kilter strangeness. That they called in Sonic Boom to produce the former and Flaming Lips cohort Dave Fridmann to helm the latter says a lot about where the duo's minds resided. They weren't looking to top the charts; they wanted to do something weirder. By the time they started making their fourth album, the band had seen some changes and their record label was allegedly upset they couldn't write another "Kids." Whether it was the band's idea or the label's, Fridmann found himself teamed with a co-producer known for making radio friendly alt-pop, Chairlift's Patrick Wimberly. The result, 2018's Little Dark Age, isn't likely to make anyone totally happy. The record company must love the slicker sound that's markedly more easily digested thanks to the restrained drums, glossy synths, and poppy melodies. What they wouldn't love is that the band are still as weird as ever. Whether it's the goofy sound effects on "When You Die," the spoken word sections of "She Works Out Too Much," or the trippy vocals of "James," there are lots of things happening that would serve to shock the casual listener out of a playlist-induced trance. The reason why fans of the band's psych-pop iconoclasm may be unhappy is that the record isn't weird enough. Wimberly's input appears to be making sure the album fits into trends instead of bucking them: Whether it's the R&B synthwave of "Days That Got Away," the new wave strut of the title track, or the soft rock jangle of "Me and Michael," almost every song on the album sounds like a version of a song that was done better by someone else. They even bring in one of the people they are aping, Ariel Pink, to provide synth and vocals on a couple tracks. Despite the disappointing nature of the album overall, there are still moments when the band get the balance right and end up with something original. "When You Die" is macabre and spooky indie pop lifted from Daniel Treacy's diary, then given a modern polish. "One Thing Left to Try" goes big, sounding like stadium new wave with fat synths and an almost shouted vocal. Both songs have a unique point of view, and that's something that is far too often lacking on Little Dark Age. They sound like a band treading water, desperately looking for their place in the modern pop landscape and never deciding whether to go pop or stay totally weird. This indecision leaves them stuck in the middle of the road, which isn't a very interesting place to be.
AllMusic Review by Tim Sendra