Top of the Pops: Oracular Spectacular

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October 2, 2016 by NowhereButPop

by Andrew Doscas

oracular_spectacular_2008

Rolling Stone ranked MGMT’s debut album, Oracular Spectacular as the 494th greatest album of all time back in 2012 on their updated list of The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.  There are definitely a minimum of six albums out there, not featured on the list, that are much better than Oracular Spectacular.  However, that’s not to say that it’s a bad album, just that out of all the albums ever recorded and released, it’s in no way one of the 500 best.

The hipster duo from Brooklyn draw upon a wide array of influences from neo-indie dance music, 60s psychedelia, and dancing praying mantises.  Despite the anachronistic nature of Oracular Spectacular, and maybe because it reminds me of my freshmen year of college, but the album has become the perfect embodiment of the college freshman experience, as it’s filled with wonderment, excitement, and in some cases, naivety.  The album is all about growing up, while at the same time trying to resist that inevitable pull of responsibility, a unique position that most 18 and 19 year olds find themselves in.

The best songs on Oracular Spectacular are the ones that you can dance too.  The opening track, “Time to Pretend”, deals with the conflicting nature of trying to achieve what you want while dealing with the overwhelming certainty that it will have to be subverted in favor of what you need to do.  When we first get to college, we have this sense that our potential is unlimited, that we can go out there and change the world, but for most of us, there’s still the looming threat of the dreaded 9-5 cubicle job.  The song itself is light, sunny, and chipper, but it still acknowledges realities such as homesickness, and the self-cannibalization of the college experience.  Those four years go by as quickly as the speed of light, and the party ends almost as quickly as it started.

The very first line of the album emblemizes this idea of a directionless, youthful energy, “I’m feeling rough, I’m feeling raw, I’m in the prime of my life”.  It’s a call to make something of that energy and enjoy one’s vitality while they still have it.  For MGMT, and for most starry-eyed freshmen the worst mistake would be to waste that energy and drive sitting in an office all day doing nothing.

“Electric Feel”, the very best song that MGMT ever wrote, and one of the best songs of the 00s has that intangible, magical quality that makes it an instant classic.  Listeners can almost feel the electricity surging through their bodies.  There’s also a very aquatic and calming nature to the song too, as though the duo is singing from a secluded island.  “Electric Feel” is totally original and touches upon so many different genres of music like disco, psychedelic, indie-pop, and dance music.  Back in 2008 and 2009 no one was hearing anything like this, and so going away to college for the first time and being thrust into a new environment and believing in the magic of this newness is summed up perfectly by “Electric Feel”.

“Kids” is the final dance hit on Oracular Spectacular, and an unlikely party anthem as it deals with literally childhood.  Yet, at every party through 2008-2010, this or “Electric Feel” was played all the time.  “Kids” is a haunting reminder that we’re not kids anymore, but also that we’re not quite adults yet.  At 18 or 19 years old, we’re at this weird stage where we’re about to shed the cocoon of adolescence, but we’re also not quite ready to emerge as full fledged adults.  Featuring one of the most memorable synth rhythms, “Kids”, like most of Oracular Spectacular is a fun song with an underlying sense of inevitability and finality.

Side one of Oracular Spectacular is the much more successful side of the album as it features all the major hits along with “Weekend Wars”, an acoustic track that treats partying, pre-gaming, and getting ready for the party as preparation for war.  Going to college parties, at least the first few, was a rush, a nervous excitement tethered to the feeling that anything could happen.  The weekends were a very “anything goes” time where those two days existed in a bubble until real life resumed on Monday.  Any given weekend you could go home with a stranger you’d never see again, or you’d see the smartest kid in your math class throwing her guts up outside a Taco Bell.  As MGMT puts it, we were all “Weekend Warriors”.  You could “try not to fight in the weekend wars”, but when you’re young and full of excitement, it’s nearly impossible to resist that urge to join the battle.

There was a strategy to going out that could only rival military planning.  What you wore, how much you had to pre-game, which party you went to were all a tell-tale sign to the night you wanted to have.  Some of us just wanted to get drunk, others would be on the prowl with nothing but lust in their hearts, while others just wanted to look good for themselves.  It became more than a ritual on Fridays and Saturdays, it became an experience shared by thousands of other liked minded kids.

Side two however, is where the album falls apart as no song can hold its own against the tracks on side one.  “4th Dimension Transition” and “Pieces of What” sound like the band is purposefully trying to do their worst imitation of 1967 Rolling Stones.  The psychedelia fails on these two tracks so much that they just sound like directionless filler.  “Of Moons, Birds, and Monsters” features the only guitar solo on the album and returns to the dreamy surrealism that permeated through side one, but its lyrical nonsense takes away from whatever MGMT thought to accomplish.

The penultimate track “The Handshake” serves as the dark sequel to “Time to Pretend”.  On this track they’ve found the wealth and fame that they sought out in “Time to Pretend”, and true to form, it isn’t as illustrious and desirable as they initially thought.  The friends and family that they abandoned in “Time to Pretend” are all replaced by “fair weather friends on parachute binge get lost when the wind blows” and a “warped temptress”.  On “The Handshake” the duo’s naivety and impulsiveness to go out and live their dreams has gotten the better of them as they’re surrounded by leeches and suckered into a Faustian bargain.  It’s a song that very easily could have been written by Fleetwood Mac, and because of it’s simplicity, “The Handshake” becomes the best track on side two.

Oracular Spectacular is the college experience.  It’s great at the time, but a few years removed, you start to see it for what it was—An enclosed period of transition from the past to the future.  On their debut, MGMT sings about using the fires of youth to their advantage even though it may leave them burned and scarred.  It’s an impetuous album filled with naivety and vitality, yet there’s always the lurking threat of inevitability and finality.  You go into college young and naïve with excitement, but there’s the reality that it’ll all be over in four years.  And like college, the main theme of Oracular Spectacular is just to enjoy the ride while it lasts.  The youthfulness and vigor that we take for granted now isn’t always going to be there, so it’s best to use it because at some point, it’ll be lost to us forever.

 

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