The Timeless Wonder of MGMT's 'Oracular Spectacular'
A decade on from neon leggings and slogan vests, their debut album still lives on as a record about letting go, immersing yourself in an experience.
The year 2007 was, in many ways, both the last hurrah of one way of living and the dawn of another. It was absolute chaos in some of the world's richest countries. Celebrities went off the rails en masse, foot and mouth disease was all over the place, the US housing bubble burst and triggered the worst financial crash since the great depression. Also: Apple released the first iPhone, Twitter began to take the heck off after its launch a year prior, and Facebook usurped Myspace as the social media platform of choice. It was the beginning of my future and, playing in the background, was MGMT's Oracular Spectacular.
MGMT were part of a very real new musical movement towards an alt-rock/synth-pop fusion that began to infiltrate the mainstream. Released in the same year as Arcade Fire's Neon Bible, Yeasayer's debut Wait for the Summer and Klaxons Myths of the Near Future, Oracular Spectacular combines an abstract, euphoric sense of nostalgia for things that hadn't necessarily happened with very real thoughts and feelings about being young, being human, and, basically, the existence of spacetime. You didn't have to be into music to be stimulated or moved by it – it was still pop, but this time it had a soul.
It's almost ironic that Oracular Spectacular was released in such close proximity to the iPhone, because its success came in part from embodying a caricatured sense of ~the future~. Its frequent nods to 70s prog rock and psychedelia make the album sound like a vintage, sci-fi version of the future. The music toes a fine line between being actually 'futuristic' (I guess a better word might be, simply, 'new'), and an anachronistic, retro version of the futuristic: the latter represented by the electric guitar, and the former by the synth. This retro edge made you feel like you were the future, as you would reading 1984 or watching Back To The Future. But the future you're in isn't a hard-edged, metallic, dystopian future – it's warm and bubbly like a jacuzzi, and it makes you feel nice feelings.
It helped, of course, if it came out when you were a teenager. Oracular Spectacular is defiantly bound up in an expression of youth that was particularly poignant for kids hitting puberty in the reckless Skins era of snogging, Class B drugs and intense confusion. It captured the feeling of a generation of people thinking, both optimistic and terrified, about their place in an unknowable future. The whole album encapsulates that splurge of euphoria and freedom and depression and restriction that comes with the transition from childhood to adulthood.
The Skins phase wasn't the sort of Skins phase that one might now diagnose any teenager with, when they get a bit squiffy on Echo Falls before the sixth form party. This was the actual Skins era, with the first series released that same year, and your whole school feeling like they had something to relate to and/or be jealous of. There was no contouring, or glittery French plait cornrows rebranded as "boxer braids" because a Kardashian Columbused them, or Instagram filters – just some cans in the park, bongs made from two-litre Coke bottles, and the regrettable prevalence of leggings. Or maybe just your GCSE revision cards and an overpowering awareness of time passing.
Either way, "Kids" was a cultural anthem that made you feel like you were in Bristol necking pingers with Chris even if you were sat on your parents' sofa doing homework. Its "duh duh duh duh duuh duh-duh duh, duh duuuuh, duuuuuuuuuuh" hook was shout-sung over the speakers at every party – a call to arms like none we'd heard before (well, since "Chelsea Dagger" a year earlier). It was delightfully immature, like a child in primary school indignantly prodding a miniature keyboard not quite in time to an exhausted teacher's djembe. With its incessant driving beat, repetitive and aggressive synth melody and banging riffs, "Kids" propelled us through adolescence and added a burst of rebellion to any given situation – the playground screams in the background mimicking our own turbulent emotions, the track itself a continuous shriek of both excitement and frustration.
It wasn't just "Kids" that spoke to the feelings of mid-millennials. Youth is the overriding theme of the whole record – it spills from every musical corner, every lyric, with the finished product appearing like a huge splodge of brightly coloured powder paint on white A4 paper. "Kids" was the third and final single, and best known track, capturing the album's youthful and humorous, yet intensely nostalgic essence in what became one of the defining hooks of the 2000s. But it's not Oracular Spectacular's most interesting or well-crafted track. The rest are equally iridescent and dripping with energy: "Time To Pretend", arguably the most powerful track on the album, is a sarky take on the fantastical and elevated dreams of the young and naïve – "I'll move to Paris, shoot some heroin and fuck with the stars / You man the island and the cocaine and the elegant cars"; "The Youth" is more reserved and melancholic; "4th Dimensional Transition" is trippy and exciting; while "Electric Feel" has a cool tempo and an almost hesitant melody that draws you in with its confidence, before spitting you back out with its fieriness. It's a bona fide banger, propelling the album's trajectory perfectly towards "Kids", which descends into a more murky second half of psychedelic synth.
Smooth, polished, rounded production has infiltrated the music industry in the past few years, at roughly the same rate as the neutral-toned, highlighter-heavy Kardashian look. If we're running with this analogy (which it looks like I am), MGMT's Oracular Spectacular is as aesthetically relevant in 2017 as blue Barry M Dazzle Dust. The production sounds slightly woolly next to the deep, husky reverberations of J Hus or the full-bodied instrumentation of Mura Masa. Bands doing the psych thing now seem to be coming at it from a more eccentric perspective, sounding deliberately chaotic (such as 2016's breakthrough brother duo, the Lemon Twigs, who are positively obsessed with the 60s and 70s). And perhaps the sentiment of Oracular Spectacular is also slightly outdated: the recklessness portrayed by Skins is no longer idealised, giving way to a dramatic spike in anxiety and value for wellness. But MGMT's cathartic, emotional – if slightly rough around the edges – album came at too significant a time to be archived.
Although Oracular Spectacular is very much a product of its time, it's part of an era of electro pop / alt rock fusion that gave way to so much – Empire of The Sun, Miike Snow, The Naked and Famous, CHVRCHES, to name just a few. This is music that combines euphoria with feeling in what feels like a large-scale crash in mid-air. MGMT and their contemporaries even segued into the likes of the Temper Trap, for the same reason.
Oracular Spectacular was among the music I listened to late at night, on repeat, during some of the most formative months of my life. At around the same time, I was poring over Bon Iver's For Emma, Forever Ago, Imogen Heap's Speak For Yourself and Jeff Buckley's Grace. It was a sensitive, emotionally-charged time. But the upbeat, electro Oracular Spectacular was not incongruous with these more openly emotive albums. In fact, it complemented them perfectly. It represented a look to the future, as well as a nostalgic nod to the past. "Kids" reminded us to be wild (and got us practising for 'Ohhh Jeremy Corbyn', let's be honest). The record represented youth at the time of my youth, and so it will always be poignant for me and my generation. But it's an album that will always have the ability to represent another time, or even another dimension. It's a record about letting go, and allowing yourself to be immersed in an experience – be that today, ten years ago today, your youth, or your future.
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