It's about time electro-glam stopped taking itself seriously. So while hype sweethearts MGMT have made some unfortunate stylistic choices on their debut, Oracular Spectacular, at least they're charming about it.
After extensive touring with Of Montreal, the duo of Andrew VanWyngarden and Ben Goldwasser has elicited a certain buzz from both the press and Urban Outfitters patrons alike. Their first single, the head-bobbing synth jam "Time To Pretend," indeed serves to confirm the buildup, but much of Oracular Spectacular veers into a sound that is distinctly different — and distinctly forced.
Perhaps the album cover best indicates MGMT's stylistic indecisiveness — a sardine-can collage of electro-calculator font, outer-space kitsch, and spirit creatures. Such directional ambiguity works well for the sonic chameleons in Of Montreal, but for MGMT, who cut their teeth on laptops and synthesizers, it's no surprise that the full-band psych-rock sound of songs like "Of Moons, Birds & Monsters" and "The Youth" — over half the LP, really — sounds a little unnatural.
After a brief residence with indie label Cantora, the duo landed a six-figure record deal in 2006 and a live backup band courtesy of Columbia Records. It's understandable, then, that MGMT would want to use the new resources to branch off from their original glitch-pop sound. But the band, despite their playful melodies and childhood-eulogizing lyrics, opted instead to replace the complementary microKORGs and drum machines rather than expand on them. The result is a goofy arena-rock sound that is relentlessly epic, built on a clumsy incorporation of organs, hippie guitars, and a U2 drum set. MGMT have appropriately dubbed their new sound "Future ‘70s," using it to romanticize outer space and an inevitable apocalypse. Unfortunately, David Bowie mined all the freaky (not to mention originality) out of that genre back in 1973.
But when MGMT are good, they're great. Early on in Oracular Spectacular, you're warmed up by "Electric Feel," a slow dance groove you'll likely add to your makeout playlist upon first listen. And, to the band's credit, it's one of the few songs where VanWyngarden's upper-octave harmonies are sexy rather than abrasive — and where their disco-dreamy makeover actually breathes new life into the song. "Kids," which became such an overwhelming fan favorite in their pre-Oracular days that the band now supposedly refuses to perform it, is an un-overplayable playground romp that sounds like the anthem to your freshman year of college. And if there's one song that captures MGMT's sincere, child-like charm, it's the viral "Time To Pretend," reminding us that, in the end, even lavish rock star dreams lead to the same don't-wanna-grow-up real world anxieties: "I'll miss the playgrounds/ And the animals/ And digging up worms."
While Oracular Spectacular has its sophomoric moments (you'd be wise to avoid the nasal whine of "Weekend Wars"), a listen to Climbing To New Lows — a catchy demo set from their undergrad days — will make anyone see what attracted the bigwigs at Columbia in the first place. With music and lyrics centered around innocence and sincerity, what MGMT fail to realize is that their innovation lies in their formerly lo-fi sound. It's not that they shouldn't have developed their collegiate laptop tinkerings, but adding bulky vocal layers and a stadium drum kit is the sonic equivalent of putting too much makeup on a 10-year-old girl.
Let's hope that in the future the duo leaves some rough edges and remembers their GarageBand roots; if not, their time to pretend will likely be over soon.