What happens when you've made the best record in the world, but you don't know how you did it? This is exactly what Andrew VanWyngarden and Ben Goldwasser now claim happened with Oracular Spectacular, by temporary genius or happy accident (which many would argue are one and the same).
Of course, they doth protest too much, these music students who know the anatomy of a pop smash inside out. That mastery, and the three huge hits it spawned, planted MGMT on a trajectory towards becoming Killers-sized. At some point, they decided they didn't want that, and would prefer to operate at the level of a Secret Machines support band.
So, in a Producers-like act of self-sabotage, the duo recorded an album which, they proudly proclaim, is deliberately shorn of radio-friendly hooks. I haven't been privileged with prior access to Congratulations, but on tonight's evidence, ranging from the shambling ("Song for Dan Treacy") to the epic ("It's Working"), they weren't kidding.
That said, some of my most cherished records have been the work of own-foot marksmen (Dexys and the Manics being two obvious examples). Let us pray that MGMT's anti-pop rhetoric is either a double bluff or a crafty piece of expectation-management, and Congratulations is actually infused with slow-release goodness.
Tonight, VanWyngarden (picture Joaquin Phoenix's flowerchild twin) and Goldwasser (a third Coen Brother who went into accounting instead), with James Richardson (Neil the Hippy) completing the front line, alternate between the old and the new, but the old wins out. "Pieces of What" and "Weekend Wars", both of which recall post-Bowie balladeers like Jobriath and Brett Smiley, get the Zippos waving. You can sense MGMT's disgust: how dare you enjoy our music?
The highlight, unsurprisingly, is the transcendent psych-soul of "Electric Feel", but it's tainted by the knowledge that it's given grudgingly. In recent interviews, MGMT have moaned about having played "Electric Feel" 400 times. There are worse ways to earn a living, and when you've recorded one of the greatest songs of the modern age – "Running Up That Hill" covered by the ghost of Curtis Mayfield – it's ungracious, to say the least. Do you ever hear Glen Campbell bitching about having to sing "Wichita Lineman"?
For an encore, VanWyngarden follows "Time to Pretend" – surely the most gloriously self-aware rock song extant – with a self-aware joke, introducing Congratulations' title track as "Doomed to Obscurity". A chink of light. If you could extract the essence of what MGMT once had, you'd bottle it and make a killing. Sadly, "bottle it" is precisely what MGMT – if early indications are correct – have done.
The girls from the New Young Pony Club choir are playing Portsmouth Bay, but the townsfolk aren't listening. Monday night in Southsea, and NYPC's UK tour gets off to a start they'll want to forget. Half the city is at a metal gig at the Pyramids. The other half's in the pub watching their local football club get thrashed by Liverpool. The Wedgewood Rooms is two-thirds empty.
Some of the most memorable gigs I've witnessed have been when the artist, faced with an unpromising situation, has risen to the challenge, turned it around, and put on a show that has every member of the meagre audience going away vowing to bring three of their friends next time.
Then there are nights like this. "You're not drunk enough," castigates Tahita Bulmer, fatally failing to recognise that the worst way of getting a crowd to have a good time is telling them off for not having one. "I wish I could sponsor a round ... but it's not gonna happen."
Admittedly, New Young Pony Club are at a disadvantage. A band whose stance involves a certain aloof detachment will always struggle to engage a reluctant room (as opposed to a crowd already in love with how cool they are).
Things go from bad to worse when a girl at the front innocently requests "Ice Cream", which happens to be next. Bulmer shoots daggers. "God, you're good," she snarls. "Do you do fortune telling too?" The result is a tense, silent stand-off between songs, everyone too scared to applaud lest they incur the singer's wrath. Which is a shame, because when NYPC play, they're excellent: Bulmer, with her harlequin dress and lopsided blonde locks, throwing sorceress moves, and Sarah Jones overturning every cliché about female drummers.
The quintet's sassy, Slits-meets-Blondie punk-funk thing was always simultaneously too sharp and too slinky for the straitjacket of Nu Rave (which they foolishly donned by joining the NME Indie Rave Tour in 2007), and in The Optimist, represented most notably tonight by singles "Lost a Girl" and "Chaos", they've a rather fine second album to prove it.
So, when Bulmer introduces their cover of PJ Harvey's "Dress" by stating "Your prayers have been answered: we didn't get more shit, we got better", it's not inaccurate. If only she didn't sound so snide while saying it. New Young Pony Club will have better nights than this. But c'mon Tahita. Don't take it out on the people who could be bothered to show up.