MGMT Week: Oracular Spectacular
Written by Mr. Harold Zo
Approaching an artist’s first album in retrospect is always a dicy enterprise, and should be attempted only with caution. This is especially true if that first album is the one that raised the artist or collective to the popular consciousness. Regrettably for our purposes, Oracular Spectacular was a conspicuous success as well as their first recorded debut. It has been certified platinum in the UK with over 500,000 copies sold and gold in America with about 600,000 there, with hundreds of thousands sold in other world markets.
In rare form for a rock band in the 2000s, all three of its singles (“Time to Pretend,” “Electric Feel,” and “Kids”) were trans-Atlantic chart successes, with “Kids” breaking into the Billboard Top 100 for the year in the United States. This record, therefore, needs to be criticized with fear and trembling, not because a negative word would provoke tens of thousands of fans, but because, unlike the vast majority of music released in a given year, it obviously transcended its status as an album per se and became a kind of Event. Because of its cultural impact and its status as the MGMT record, the one that defined what people think of the band, it can be difficult to avoid reviewing the Event instead of the music.
That is a perfectly fine thing to do, of course, if one is trying to review an Event, to take Oracular Spectacular, say, as an example of indie rock charging into the mainstream or an exemplar of some trend or other in British and American pop music. Those would be wonderful articles if done correctly. My intention, however, is to review an album, and that album is MGMT’s Oracular Spectacular, released in 2008. If I am not going to be reviewing an Event, what perspectives do I have available to me? What if the reader isn’t interested in the fact that NME named this the best album of 2008, or that it and its attendant singles somehow landed in Rolling Stone’s lists multiple times over?
Let’s get this review started.
Yesterday, I posted a review of MGMT’s new single “Alien Days.” The gist of it was that I considered it to be a good Exhibit A of MGMT’s relationship to its influences. Oracular Spectacular shares most of those same influences, though it wears them rather differently. Moreover, it provides, especially in its first half, a much more cogent and bold pronouncement of its creators’ view of the world. Just as in “Alien Days,” MGMT’s primary move is to occupy an ambivalent, highly flexible gap between pure homage to and acidic critique of its predecessors and contemporary culture.
Spend some time listening to “Time to Pretend,” and you notice a curious chronological confusion going on. While its creators were in their early twenties at the time of its creation (several years before they released the album), the song is not only a young adult manifesto of resignation (“We’re fated to pretend”) and carpe diem (“This is our decision to live fast and die young”), a large part of the song is a longing for childhood. Note this verse:
I’ll miss the playgrounds and the animals and digging up worms
I’ll miss the comfort of my mother and the weight of the world
I’ll miss my sister, miss my father, miss my dog and my home
Yeah I’ll miss the boredom and the freedom and the time spent alone
When was the last time the typical college student dug up worms or played on playgrounds? Judging by some of the campuses I have been to, probably not long enough ago. What we have here is the same blurring of decades, the corruption of the present time with both unreachable, even self-destructive dreams, which are laid out in a kind of cynical satire, and nostalgia for purer times. Children are mentioned or referred to in a disproportionately high number of MGMT songs, and their preoccupation with children as avatars of a kind of idealized youth has continued all the way to the present. I would argue that that obsession with youth is a fine match for their stylistic ancestors, namely 1960s psychedelic bands, the punk band Suicide, and their more dance-oriented peers in Of Montreal. In the first half of the album, the topics of hedonism (“Electric Feel”), youth (“The Youth” and “Kids”), and a kind of suspicious nostalgia predominate.
Read these lyrics from “The Youth:”
This is a call of arms to live and love and sleep together
We could flood the streets with love or light or heat whatever
Lock the parents out, cut a rug, twist and shout
Wave your hands
Make it rain
For stars will rise again
Here we have an absurdity, at least. There are probably more, but we can see the same anachronism, a sense that living in this age of easy access to information and the culture of not just yesterday but fifty years ago sets us adrift in time. There are the obvious references to The Beatles and to old slang for dancing (“cut a rug”) and a clever doubled meaning for the word “stars” as both cosmic and earthly, human and celestial. Are we on Earth? Or space? Difficult to tell. Multiple decades are blurred, and the sound of the music, wistful and atmospheric, only serves to further unmoor us in time.
The two best songs on the album other than “Time to Pretend,” both of which come in the latter half, are “4th Dimensional Transition” and “Of Moons, Birds & Monsters,” which are more reminiscent of the music we would get on Congratulations. Eschewing dance and straightforward, if ambivalent, sarcasm, the songs inhabit much spacier territory. On the former, beats cluster together densely, setting the pace into a frenzy. About a minute in, the music becomes far heavier, and the vocals are menacing and distant. Distorted guitar chords remind us that we still have one foot in the sixties, but something about the sheer density of the music makes it seem otherworldly. The vocalist sings, “If what they say is true/You are a shadow in the fourth dimension/To float away with you/We see the corners where nothing happens.” As the song ends, the voices continue but the song clears out space. It’s packed with far more musical ideas than the single-heavy first half, and is remarkably well-executed.
“Of Moons, Birds & Monsters,” despite ignoring my preference for Oxford commas, (though who gives a fuck about those?) is driven by a sinister bassline and guitars. Of all the songs on the album it is the most purely psychedelic, with some beautiful vocal harmonies cast on a storm of sound. Its imagery centers around its titular trio. At one point, halfway through, most of the sound clears out and there remains only huge bass beats and some starry synthesizer patterns. Its pace slows and, within the rest of the song, you feel oddly at peace despite the presence of so many monsters. How do they deal with those monsters, anyway?
To catch a monster
We make a movie
Set the tempo
And cut and cut its brains out
That certainly works, though I would have preferred less carnage if possible.
With all this drifting, anachronism, and movie making, what can we say? Does MGMT bring us back home after our harrowing journey through we-know-not-when? Well, I think we can take some comfort in the fact that the last song on the album is “Future Reflections.” Its voices are eerie and accompanied by vintage synths. It is dense, complicated, and frantic. I appreciate its magnetic bass pulse. While its futuristic musings are far from totally reassuring, the band sends us off on a high note. Our final lyrical image is of sunshine, and just before that the band throws us a bone:
If it’s good or if it’s fortune, I can’t tell
But pieces come together for some reason just as well
Their guns couldn’t see us
And one day I’ll appreciate
The rush of blood and the washed out beat of the shore
From blatantly physical through a wooly journey through that undefined 4th dimension and back to embodiment. We have glimpsed all we can at this point. There is a certain lack of satisfaction in such an ending. That first half of the album–those singles–are well-crafted pop songs. Sonically, they radiate confidence and assurance and are possessed of an anthemic quality. When the lines get squigglier and the music starts to close in and compress, something is lost. That is sure. However, Oracular Spectacular ultimately succeeds in bringing us back to a landing. Tomorrow we’ll have more to say about how to compare this record to Congratulations, but for now it’s appropriate to just celebrate the surprising success of such an unconventional record in a hostile world. No wonder MGMT has its teeth bared so often; it’s a jungle out there, as Alexius would tell you.