The Difficult Second Album Syndrome can be a handy way of looking at the careers of artists, but more often than not the diagnosis fails to apply. The theory is that musicians spend so much of their creative juices just getting noticed that when the time comes to build on the success of their debut, the well has run dry. But not only do superior and instantly beloved follow-ups such as Radiohead's The Bends come along just as often as critical failures such as The Stone Roses' Second Coming, but many commonly held examples of sophomore slump are rightly hailed as classics further down the line. But it's difficult to see how that could ever happen to Congratulations.
With their major label debut, 2008's Oracular Spectacular, the occasionally cape-wearing Brooklynites MGMT didn't just produce three of the decade's finest singles (Time to Pretend, Kids and Electric Feel), they brought psychedelic music into the 21st century by plastering bizarre lyrics and gloriously fuzzy guitars and synths over danceable electro-pop. The album had moments of introspection too, but they were still full of warmth and wonder.
But not only does Congratulations fail to provide anything that could be mistaken for anthems (or even hooks), it takes psychedelia back in time 40 years. Instead of glorious choruses, stomping rhythms and funk riffs that would make Prince proud, this album has MGMT fidgeting around with the introverted psychedelia that obsessed, and ultimately consumed, Syd Barrett. Although it deserves to be written in stone that any band capable of making people dance should try to do it as often as possible, if MGMT want to trade electro-funk for retro whimsy, they should be allowed to do it. But that doesn't mean it will be any good.
Whereas Barrett mused about playgrounds and fantastical characters, MGMT mutter insider references about Brian Eno and other lines so oblique they're hardly worth paying attention to. The opener It's Working kicks off the album with a modest amount of success, but there's something muted about the delivery that never really goes away. It's as if their confidence is shot. Then comes Song for Dan Treacy, which sounds like a limp take on a Pete Doherty song. After that, half the album drifts past without a catchy chorus and certainly no toe-tapping moments. The 12-minute epic Siberian Breaks might just make you sit up and take notice, but then it's back to the same forgettable, slightly geriatric psych-pop.
There's nothing on Congratulations that's downright embarrassing; it is listenable and very occasionally shows flashes of the brilliance that came before it, but the album as a whole fails to retain any of what made audiences love MGMT to begin with. While nobody would like to see them become a stale parody of themselves, this is a step in the wrong direction. It is only because of the magnificence of their debut that Congratulations feels like such a disappointment. And that's also the reason why the band deserve another chance to prove themselves.