MGMT – Oracular Spectacular
Have you heard the one about the two guys who started a joke band, then accidentally created one of the biggest albums of the decade?
No one really got the joke, but MGMT are still living with the irony.
MGMT were the most reluctant of rock stars, and Oracular Spectacular was their most perfect accident.
In 2001, Wesleyan College students Andrew Vanwyngarden and Ben Goldwasser started making dance-pop jams in their dorm room with stock loops on Ben’s laptop.
"At the time we were nerdy liberal arts college students. The band was a joke about being rock stars," Goldwasser said while dissecting album opener ‘Time To Pretend’ on an episode of music podcast Song Exploder.
The project began as The Management, already a telling jab at music industry bullshit.
“That was the whole shtick of the band in College. We'd be playing in someone's living room and wearing fur coats and drinking champagne and acting like fools,” Vanwyngarden added.
“It was kind of performance art in a way but it wasn't high concept,” said Goldwasser.
That the project wasn’t high concept likely worked in the duo’s favour. In the process of their screwing around and trying to be ‘ironic’, these proto-hipster kids unintentionally created three of the most effervescent, memorable pop hits of the noughties.
"There was never a point where we decided we were going to make the poppiest songs ever,” Goldwasser told Pitchfork in 2010.
“Well, yeah we did, sort of. But it was really ironically,” Vanwyngarden interjected.
“I remember when we wrote ‘Kids’, I started writing the music in such a weird mood, drunk at 3 a.m. by myself. I wasn't trying to write music that people would like,” Goldwasser said.
A decade on from their official release, ‘Electric Feel’, ‘Kids’ and ‘Time To Pretend’ are still automatic, irresistible dancefloor fillers. All three songs made the top 20 in the Hottest 100 of 2008, and ‘Kids’ made Rolling Stone’s list of the 100 best songs of the 2000s.
The pair had no idea these songs written for laughs would have such a lasting impact on young people.
But the people at Columbia Records heard that hit potential in their 2005 EP Time To Pretend, a lo-fi synth-pop masterpiece that fused “super naive child-like melody” (to quote Andrew on Song Exploder) with lyrics that were as sardonic as their were poetically tragic.
“We weren't really trying to write hit songs or get recognition from other people. We were doing it mostly for ourselves, just for fun,” Goldwasser told Interview Magazine in 2008.
“Well, we definitely weren't trying to get a record deal.”
Oh, the irony.
We kept telling them that we weren't necessarily going to make music like that again...Andrew VanWyngarden — Interview Magazine, 2008
When the pair were presented with a contract from Columbia to expand the EP into a full-length, Ben and Andrew had parted ways. MGMT was almost over.
“Even six months before we signed our deal, we were in very different places, and I remember rarely even talking to Ben, because he didn't have a phone out in the woods where he was working at a construction job.
“I was in Brooklyn, wanting to do music stuff, and he wasn't really into it. I remember him saying he wanted to do some sort of social work, something noble for a good cause.
"I was like, ‘C'mon, man! Where's your selfish ambition?’
“Eventually I got him to come to New York. We were just going to go work on a few songs, and then he was maybe going to go to California.
"Then Columbia Records sent me an e-mail out of the blue. Then we got offered a record deal,” VanWyngarden told Interview Magazine.
“When the label people were talking to us, we knew that they liked us because of that EP. That's all they had heard. They hadn't seen us play live.
“We kept telling them over and over that we weren't necessarily going to make music like that again, just because we were kind of over the ironic-pop-song thing.”
So, when the pair began work on Oracular Spectacular, they endeavoured to make the kind of music they actually liked, tapping The Flaming Lips’ go-to producer Dave Fridmann. With Fridmann, the duo filled out the rest of the album with bright, psychedelic gems that referenced early Bowie, The Kinks, The Flaming Lips and contemporaries Of Montreal.
“We didn't want to be ironic this time,” Vanwyngarden said in 2008.
“We wanted to actually put some effort into the songwriting.”
And so that’s why MGMT’s debut sounds like an album in two acts.
The first half holds all the hits, opening with the playful synth wub and jungle bird samples (the very same ones from Ben’s college laptop) of ‘Time To Pretend’, the delirious kaleidoscopic fantasy of ‘Electric Feel’ and the earworm hit ‘Kids’, interspersed with the melancholy yet catchy ‘Weekend Wars’ and ‘The Youth’.
‘The youth are starting to change / are you starting to change?’ Vanwyngarden sings almost to himself.
There was never a point where we decided we were going to make the poppiest songs ever.Ben Goldwasser — Pitchfork, 2010
‘4th Dimensional Transition’ is just that, taking us beyond the galaxies to meet the new, weird, unironic band MGMT have become.
The album pulses along with Vanwyngarden’s intentionally forced delivery, acoustic guitar and swirling synths that fill the space bereft of hooks.
It lasts as an incredible body of work, but remains dominated by those three singles, created by what was really another band entirely.
When MGMT followed up the hit-spawning Oracular with the hitless, underrated swirling psych opus Congratulations, they confused and lost a lot of those ‘Kids’-loving kids, to which they would come to say ‘good riddance’.
‘We were fated to pretend’ the guys sing in the stinging final line of ‘Time To Pretend’. Pretty foreboding in hindsight.
There’s nothing more telling about the fate of MGMT than Vanwyngarden’s explanation of album cut ‘The Handshake’ to Spin in 2008.
“The handshake is the deal,” Vanwyngarden says. “I was thinking about a mental asylum, when a patient tricks the nurse by keeping the pills under his tongue, then spits them out when she walks away.”
Where Andrew and Ben heard joke rock star braggadocio, fans heard infectious hooks, genre-twisting club-friendly bangers that would come to define the decade.
Those delicious notes served with the salty lyrical irony only liberal arts students could deliver also ushered in the age of the hipster, partying became a gag, take nothing seriously, like everything ironically.
Turns out, a joke song isn't so funny if the song is actually good.
Turns out the joke was on MGMT all along. - Nat Tencic