It’s safe to say that, back in November, had anyone asked us which band’s album would be the first of the new year rush-released due to unprecedented demand, our answer would emphatically have been: “Not MGMT”. That’s not because the self-styled ’70s futurists seemed in any way undeserving of the current furore. It’s only because the last time an album was fast-tracked this quickly it was after Kate Nash’s so-planned ‘slow-burner’ of a single ‘Foundations’ accidentally clattered straight up the chart to Number Two last July, then stayed there for five weeks. Last time we checked, MGMT didn’t have a record-breaking Number Two single. They didn’t even have a name anyone could agree how to say. With their stoner-rock beanies and prog-rock odyssies, it was to the top of the Most Underrated Of 2008 critics’ lists rather than to the front of the display racks of Zavvi that their debut seemed most obviously destined. However, if the stacks of import-only copies of ‘Oracular Spectacular’ shipped in from the States (where the album has been available since the end of January) to satisfy the Brits have already proved one thing, it’s that MGMT are anything but predictable.
“Let’s make some music, make some money, find some models for wives. I’ll move to Paris, shoot some heroin and fuck with the stars”, goes opening track ‘Time To Pretend’; already one of the most-quoted lyrics of 2008. The thing is, after a cursory glance at their sleeves for their primary influences (David Bowie, T-Rex, Fleetwood Mac, anything bombastic and ’70s, basically) we’re not sure they are pretending. Andrew VanWyngarden and Ben Goldwasser might look like hippies; they might be credible, fascinating, boundary-pushing artistic originators; but they don’t have any qualms about signing to a major record label that’s going to pump millions of dollars into choppering them from Wireless to yet another day of press and promotion if it’s going to make them a household name. It’s an alt.rock oxymoron pre-loaded to blow Ryan Jarman’s entire belief system apart, and why not? As ‘Time To Pretend’ concludes: “If you’ve got the vision/Why not have some fun?”It’s that vision which is the key to what makes ‘Oracular Spectacular’ – produced by Mercury Rev’s Dave Fridmann – such an important debut.
For all ‘Time To Pretend’’s big talk about embracing rock’s most hackneyed stereotypes, musically the one thing MGMT never are is a cliché. Just as that track ends with you thinking you’ve got them down as neo-psychedelic yuppies in thrall to The Flaming Lips and ostentatious cymbal crashes, ‘Weekend Wars’ opens up a whole new world of Neil Young, baroque and introspection: “Once I was too lazy to bathe/Or paint or write or try to make a change /Now I can shoot a gun to kill my lunch/And I don’t have to love or think too much”. Indeed, for a self-proclaimed bunch of no-nonsense capitalists, there’s a lot of metaphysical moon-gazing going on in MGMT’s lyrics. Witness ‘4th Dimensional Transition’ – a pagan-like cacophony of tribal drumming and questions such as “I am fire, where’s my form?” Or the fact that they got the name for their album by typing the words ‘mystic bullshit’ into Google and looking for alternatives. By fourth track ‘Electric Feel’, they’re off again. This time morphing into electro-funk cringe-meisters manning the mic on ladies’ night: “I said ooh girl, shock me like an electric eel/Baby girl, turn me on with your electric feel”. Unbelievably, they still manage to come out the other side of it more Bowie than Bee Gees – experimental pop chameleons, game enough to try anything at least once.
If there’s one shadow that falls across ‘Oracular Spectacular’’s lunar soundscapes though, it’s that the back-end lacks the twisted punch of the first half. But there is a fair trade-off; the top’s massive cosmic-pop hooks swapped for gargantuan ’70s FM anthems. From the coke-rock wizardry of ‘Of Moons, Birds & Monsters’, to the Elton John adulation at work in ‘The Handshake’, ‘Oracular…’ just gets more ambitious and elaborate the further it goes. Inevitably though, underneath the force of so much extravagance, MGMT’s self-assured armour splits. “People always told me, don’t forget your roots/I know I can feel them underneath my leather boots” (‘The Handshake’), cautions Andrew VanWyngarden on what could be interpreted as a perilous tale of what happens when you exchange your counter-culture ideals for a big Columbia logo on your CD. Is this rare moment of downbeat earnestness where MGMT drop the façade to reveal their real selves? Or is it just one final sardonic dig at the Jarmans of this world and their quaint and out-dated indie morality? MGMT aren’t telling.
Two things are for sure, though. For all its musical philandering, unbridled excess and shrouds of irony, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a record with more musical depth and warmth all year than this one. And right now, while in possession of the most in-demand debut in the world, that pop-star life plan thing’s working out quite nicely for MGMT, thanks ever so much.