Oracular Spectacular Turns 10
When Hollywood unveils its first nostalgic coming-of-age period piece about the late aughts, an MGMT song will inevitably soundtrack the trailer. “Kids” is the obvious choice to accompany the exploits of young people at the dawn of the Obama administration due to its title, its propulsive-yet-wistful tone, and its status as the band’s biggest hit. But really any of the three massive singles from MGMT’s debut Oracular Spectacular, which came out 10 years ago today, would be era-appropriate; all of them were an inescapable component of house parties, hipster dance nights, and TV commercials for months and even years after the album’s release. And even after “Kids,” “Electric Feel,” and “Time To Pretend” disappeared from the forefront of pop culture, their influence continued to shape the sound of the quote-unquote alternative rock that pads out festival lineups and radio playlists to this day. Indie rock’s gentrification was already well underway by the time MGMT showed up, but few bands played a bigger role in converting the genre into a booming big-budget industry.
That’s a mostly dubious legacy and one MGMT apparently wanted no part of. Each subsequent album from the band found Andrew VanWyngarden and Ben Goldwasser spurning easy listening synth-rock bangers in favor of ever weirder hermetic psych-pop experiments, running as fast as they could from the sound that made them temporary superstars. But even if Oracular Spectacular is to blame for the rise of a thousand anonymous Foster The Peoples, the album itself is something MGMT can be proud of — in particular those three singles, which endure as some of the finest pop music to emerge from those years.
Some credit must go to Dave Fridmann, the maximalist production wizard who’d previously helped MGMT’s fellow psych freaks the Flaming Lips adapt their sound for world domination. Fresh out of Wesleyan University and buoyed by a contract with Columbia Records, VanWyngarden and Goldwasser linked up with Fridmann at his Tarbox Road Studios in Cassadaga, New York to record their debut. The album that emerged from those sessions never feels less than vibrantly alive, both the hits and the more challenging and discursive psych-pop tracks that comprise most of the rest of the tracklist. In “Time To Pretend” and “Kids,” which had originally appeared on MGMT’s Wesleyan-era Time To Pretend EP, we have evidence of Fridmann’s prowess. The new recordings on Oracular Spectacular convert those songs into bigger, brighter, bolder blockbusters, polished and direct enough to connect with millions while maintaining some vestiges of MGMT’s essential quirkiness on the fringes.
Even in their unrefined EP form, though, those songs were self-evident strokes of genius. MGMT have always erred on the side of ’60s- and ’70s-inspired suites like the towering “Weekend Wars,” the strumming and shimmering “The Handshake,” and the brisk, expansive rave-up “Of Moons, Birds & Monsters.” (Another aspect of MGMT’s legacy: clearing a path for other heavily stylized white-guy duos like Foxygen and the Lemon Twigs who seemed to reject the notion that recorded music continued beyond 1979.) And although those Oracular Spectacular deep cuts hold up much better than I remembered, MGMT struck gold — both financially and creatively speaking — when they decided to apply their psych-pop skill set to dance music of a sort.
With festival scene in full bloom and buzzwords like hope and change in the air, a window was open for somebody to recast utopian Summer Of Love vibes for a new generation. A wall of surging keyboards and a slowed-down disco-punk beat marked “Time To Pretend” as an ideal anthem for that specific purpose — never mind that a close reading reveals its lyrical rock-star fantasies to be more than a little tongue-in-cheek. The bass-powered falsetto funk-rocker “Electric Feel” was more self-consciously retro, cribbing liberally from T. Rex and Barry Gibb without much of a modern update, yet it struck such a chord among MGMT’s peers that none other than Frank Ocean flipped it into an explicit Garden Of Eden story on his own big breakthrough nostalgia, ULTRA.
And then there was “Kids,” a plea for self-control that has undoubtedly soundtracked countless youthful indiscretions. Maybe you encountered it in a video game or a cell phone ad or a movie or a TV show or as the source material for a deeply corny rap song. Maybe it was on the radio or in the background at the grocery store or your favorite restaurant. It probably didn’t slip past you because it was everywhere. Remarkably, “Kids” only made it as high as #91 on Billboard’s Hot 100 despite eventually going platinum; in the streaming era it almost certainly would have scraped the top 10. It’s probably the simplest song on Oracular Spectacular: The ridiculously catchy rudimentary keyboard riff that lends the song its approachable personality is undergirded by another, even more basic keyboard bass line that lends the song its forward momentum, and that’s almost the whole of it. The song has drums and vocals and assorted childhood samples, but those keyboards were really all “Kids” needed to become a sweeping cultural force, one that kept reverberating long after MGMT opted for a different trajectory.