Oracular Spectacular

(Columbia; 2007)

By Dom Sinacola | 1 April 2008

In 2005, this was autumn I’m talking, I bought a MGMT tee-shirt from their merch booth at an Of Montreal show where the still-unsigned-to-Columbia duo opened, two frequently shirtless guys set right into the grain of a frequently shirtless show; Chiclet abs and unnaturally-hued feather boas only vaguely foreshadowed how later both of these bands would become grueling, obnoxious spectacles, carnivals of kitsch and sparkles and spandex shallowly tapping into showy electro-trends of the late 70s and 80s with no real semiotic base to refer to or channel into a more salient message. That Kevin Barnes has turned his band’s stage presence into a Bacchanalian clusterfuck of the grotesque and the squirmy stupids is maybe more predictable than troubling, but at least MGMT had a sense of humor way back when: wearing capes and toting around the Fisher-Price instruments of which the Fuck Buttons now seem to be fond, Ben Goldwasser and Andrew VanWyngarden didn’t actually appear to be doing anything more than signaling for the sound guy to press play and then skipping around the stage to the jerky, robotic glam of some insanely catchy coke detritus. I turned to my friend John a few times to see my thoughts mirrored in his brow, all “Is this supposed to be a joke? Like some thinly veiled performance art?” and then I went to buy a tee-shirt, but they had no smalls, and knowing Fruit of the Loom to run large I decided to trust my lithe frame and get the XS because even if I let some underbelly hair peek out and couldn’t help but sweat profusely in the suffocating, powder-blue fabric, I really wanted the tee-shirt—which had some ugly, unexplainably decapitated Grendel beast on the front kind of resembling that Comus cover—and swimming in it instead of struggling through it seemed worse. So I struggled as I oogled this half-band, straining to find the fascia that would somehow make a whole from the flailing pieces, from the stage backdrop that seemed to be dirty linens held up by PVC pipe, from the spare and rudimentary dance-junk that sent their bodies into paroxysm, from my loss as to how to pronounce their name, from the fact that they seemed to be blatantly shitting on the kind of pretention that later their greatest champions would champion. I never made much connection but it didn’t much matter because they were putting on a goddamned show.

That was when they were touring behind the Time To Pretend EP, which titularly made a lot of garish sense. But then the timeline continues: Steve Lillywhite signs them to Columbia in 2006, the two Wesleyan graduates pick Dave Fridmann as their producer, put together a five-piece touring band, and then they make Oracular Spectacular and it is logically a bloated, uncomfortable, saturated throwback to no genre, time period, or movement in particular. Now, I may have a bias against Dave Fridmann because I hate him, but the last thing MGMT ever needed to make the jump to clean production and a hefty recording budget was an engineer with absolutely no idea of restraint and an asinine urge to lard-up every pinprick of space with ceaseless synth lines and pointlessly contrapuntal licks and power chords and other assorted cosmic whistles or doody. Sure, the record’s a slog to get through, a lot less fun then all the Timothy Leary psychedelia would have us assume, but what’s so infuriating is how instead of playing with tropes inherent in LSD cultism or 80s prog or commercial electro-pop, the band just shitstreams it into an unassailable, monotonous din. The organ drone and fuzz of “Time To Pretend” is the same as that of “The Youth,” which does the same thing as the—yeah, I know—chirping kids voices of “Kids” or the barreling “tribal” drums of the dumbly intergalactic “4th Dimensional Transition.” Shit just fills space with lazy signposts, weaving around Prince falsettos and programmed beats with no real interesting rhythm or motive besides, I dunno, go fast.

And I could continue to rag on the band, detail how every song follows the same blueprint or compare the multi-multi-tracked, echoed vocals to Jim James’s because they kind of sound the same but James builds intimacy through admitting to his arena-ready cords and never flexing while MGMT just have squealing, dirty underwear for voices set to Jim Morrison mugs, but I’d be ignoring the nugget of fun that made me want to buy their tee-shirt in the first place. Somewhere in, say, “Electric Feel” or in the collusion of voices that make up the chorus of “The Youth,” there’s a narrow purpose: to make us dance, taking loping strides at each booming “ooh,” or perhaps to sincerely touch our hearts with a simple melody both anthemic and careful. But MGMT mostly just seem like a coupla jerks, hiding bland, confused songwriting behind theatrics and cock rings. And by cock rings I mean Dave Fridmann.