Oracular Spectacular 17 years later

Oracular Spectacular 17 years later

On Saturday night, after hanging out for a while with our friends and their three-year-old son (you ever read Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile? Not bad) my husband and I went Out for a bit.

We went to the venue Zebulon, where an indie-ish dance party ("New Wave, Post-Punk, Psych, Pop, Electro and beyond") was promised. It was busy when we arrived. The DJ was tucked in a corner, and the stage was left open to any brave attendees who wanted to channel their inner go-go dancer. We got "Dance" by ESG...legendary..."1901" by Phoenix...always a pleasure...then the opening synth line of MGMT's "Time To Pretend" arrived, and the dance floor got noticeably more packed.

In movies, club scenes often have a whiff of inauthenticity, because it's rare to have the entire real estate of the dance floor looking engaged and happy, the way directors often command it. In real life, you get dead zones where people are talking instead of dancing, or dancers whose movements are half-assed and self-conscious. This iteration of "Time To Pretend" cued up a movie feeling: everyone was dancing with their hands in the air. And they also seemed like they just didn't care. I honestly don't even think of "Time To Pretend" as a dance song—you can get a little mileage out of pogoing to it for a while, but the tempo doesn't invite a lot of ass shaking—but this night, it worked.

"This was in Saltburn," I yelled at my husband. "Also people on TikTok talk about MGMT like it's classic rock now."

"the Saltburn soundtrack was well-curated, but the anachronisms were VERY distracting"

The next day, Sunday, I wanted to go to Best Buy to try out an e-ink device that promises a 'distraction-free' writing experience, because the story of my life is the story of my search for the perfect 'distraction-free' writing experience (50% of my time in college was spent in the library with FocusWriter on full screen, playing rain sounds from RainyMood.com on top of Black Moth Super Rainbow, writing David Foster Wallace rip-off short stories). The amount of time in the car to and from Best Buy would be perfect for listening to MGMT's debut album Oracular Spectacular, which I hadn't really engaged with since 2009 or so.

God, what a wild album. I first heard of MGMT in a very short blurb in Rolling Stone magazine, where they were listed as "The Management." My big 'okay grandma let's get you to bed' bit of trivia is that MGMT was originally supposed to be pronounced like the full word...when I saw them live and the crowd kept shouting EM GEE EM TEE! I knew it was a lost cause.

I almost assuredly bought Oracular Spectacular with an iTunes gift card. I listened to it all senior year of high school, quietly honing my hipster identity, which would go into overdrive when I went off to college and started hanging out with people who smoked American Spirits and had casual conversations about Portishead's Third and played Radiohead remixes as makeout music.

"Electric Feel," "Time to Pretend" and "Kids" had already been in indie-hits rotation for me for years, but I lit up like an activated sleeper agent when "Weekend Wars" started playing. "EVIL S I YES TO FIND A SHORE," I yelled automatically, switching to falsetto for the "TRY TO BREAK MY HEART, I'LL DRIVE TO ARIZONA" section.

The specialness of this debut is as obvious as a stop sign. It's proggy but never at the expense of its poppiness, 'psychedelic' without being obnoxious. The synth tones are like the most evolved version of all the weird textures that came out of mid '00s electronica. Every bass part is interesting. I can imagine the personnel from Columbia Records gently sweating as they pushed a contract toward Andrew VanWyngarden and Ben Goldwasser.

What I didn't notice from my first intense bout of listening, in the way that the lil fish in the DFW "This Is Water" speech didn't notice the water that surrounded them, was the end-of-Bush-II mood that pervades Oracular Spectacular. It's like MGMT knew that Obama was going to win. Themes of Youth, Childhood, Change and Love flourish throughout. "The youth are starting to change, are you starting to change?" "I was too lazy to bathe / Or paint or write or try to make a change." It almost breaks my brain to think of the simplified demands of nascent millennials at the end of the aughts. Please, no more of this. I want something else to get me through this semi-charmed kind of life.

Likewise, reviewing the styling of MGMT during this time—the "little jackets and borrowed nostalgia for the unremembered '80s" that James Murphy referenced in his dance punk manifesto "Losing My Edge", the Lurex and headbands and big floppy sweaters—gave me a new perspective. At the time I thought hipster dressing was cool, mature, adult. Now I realize a lot of it was "kid who got into their parents' closet midway through an epic game of make-believe." Everyone kind of looked like Max from Where the Wild Things Are if he worked at an American Apparel.

The coolest outfit you could wear was one that made you look like a kindergartener who got to dress themselves for school that day. Do you know how many pairs of brightly colored tights I owned in 2008? You don't notice childishness when you're a child.

i felt pretty neat in this picture and now it looks like i should be hosting a show on Nickelodeon

Still, MGMT's celebration of the naïveté of youth was tempered with a good deal of irony. You could hear it in the slight sneer of their voices. "To catch a monster, we make a movie," they sang—a lyric I didn't really get at the time, but now I do. Maybe there's no such thing as authenticity when you decide to "record an album." An album is artifice, an album released on a major label even more so. There was always an underlying joke with MGMT you could decide whether not to get in on, and every five years or so they come back with a new album that forces critics to reckon with that joke, which is why every release of theirs is either an indulgent departure or a return to form, over and over and over again.

Does Oracular Spectacular "hold up"? Oh yeah, for sure. It holds up...a piece of my adolescence! It's a structural support for the part of my life before perception of music was poisoned by "streaming numbers," the part of my life when I was still too awkward to do anything other than shuffle and nod with my hands in my pockets to "Time To Pretend." That time is now over. I can dance like a fool and not care. The youth are starting to change.