Oracular Spectacular, the debut album by MGMT, is full of indie rock tropes. It’s got a revivalist sound, showing itself here in a love of big ’70s sound and space rock. It is dripping with irony and awfully self-aware. You can feel the duo constantly mugging at each other, and at us, as the record presses on. All of this piled into one record by a new band, especially now when we’re inundated with new bands not worthy of the hype, should be terribly irritating. But it’s not. Really. The smirks and winks are laid on thick here, but the band usually manages to overcome them with a sincere zeal for what they’re doing. All throughout the record MGMT don’t necessarily sound original, but the energy they bring to their songs is distinctly theirs. And the level of execution is spot-on.
The band smartly brought Dave Fridmann on to help produce this record and, as the man is no stranger to big, spacey sounds, the fit is a perfect one. “Time to Pretend”, the album’s opener, shows off the band’s penchant for big synth lines as they sing about the ups and downs of being rock stars. They sing about drugs and model girlfriends and every other typical rock star pitfall. But rather than lament them, MGMT embraces the excesses while sending them up. The faux-strings and spaced-out drums make the song huge and saccharin, which somehow bolsters their persona’s wish to live fast and die young while simultaneously belying it. The song sets up a record where the music often strips any sense of self-seriousness from the songs while also fitting perfectly with their subject.
“Weekend Wars” sounds like Stardust-era Bowie, as the band sings about the robot-trudge of the work week. “The Youth” sounds like the Flaming Lips doing a Queen cover — no surprise with Fridmann at the knobs — and is both cautionary and anthemic. “Electric Feel”, which rounds out the first four tracks, is their take on a funky disco dance number. And while the “this song sounds like this band” move is usually a lame critical move, it seems apropos here. MGMT don’t only lend themselves to those sorts of comparisons, they are aspiring to them on Oracular Spectacular. The duo wears their influences way out on their sleeve, and then pulls those big sounds off with equal parts musicianship and wild energy.
Unfortunately, it is an energy that can’t sustain itself. Like the young rock stars of “Time to Pretend”, the album burns out rather than fading away. The second half of the record settles into a more monotone kind of space rock that is as big as the better first half, but gives us no recognizably distinct songs or catchy melodies. These songs try and coast the wave set up early in the record, but they just can’t keep up, as they all lump together to sound like a big, typically Fridmann-esque lump of synth-and-fuzz indie rock. And the way the album falls apart reveals the limits of this young band’s scope. The individual songs may be big, but the road they travel is a narrow and short one.
MGMT is a young band, and Oracular Spectacular is a solid start. But let’s hope that, from here, they can build on their strengths and push past their limitations.