In the arts, youth and accidental excellence go hand in hand. There’s something liberating about not knowing the rules of the game, and that, coupled with the hubris of young adulthood, often results in premature works of brilliance. That’s probably why buzz bands are thriving these days but sustained artistic growth remains elusive for most of them.
The debut album from MGMT — a pair of hotshot twentysomethings based in Brooklyn — sounds like a college-dorm experiment gone horribly right. So many other electro-pop duos have tried mixing such volatile elements as glam rock, disco, and new wave, and they’ve failed miserably. Andrew Vanwyngarden and Ben Goldwasser, however, succeed because they treat this record as if it’s their only shot at glory. Opener “Time to Pretend” is both an overblown manifesto and living will wrapped up in one tidy package.
“This our decision, to live fast and die young/ We’ve got the vision, now let’s have some fun,” sings the duo in ghostly harmony, the vocals encased in a mist of reverb and squiggly keyboards.
It would be an empty declaration if the rest of Oracular Spectacular didn’t deliver. But then “Weekend Wars” lumbers in, upping the sonic spectacle even further. The track nimbly maneuvers from a straight-ahead acoustic number to a decadent wall-of-sound finale without missing a beat. Although its lyrics read like a series of impressionistic splotches on an open canvas, “Wars” makes a clear stylistic statement: MGMT does indeed have a compelling vision to express.
Impressively, this pair manages to avoid the derivative influence-worship that bogs down most debut albums. Even “Electric Feel,” an obvious pastiche of decade-old Beckisms, somehow redeems itself as a goofy, falsetto-driven slice of white funk. “Kids,” meanwhile, heavily relies on the same synth line that has dominated discotheques for years. But the song’s catchy refrain and post-collegiate nostalgia infuse it with MGMT’s particular character.
With its big knockout blows already delivered, the duo takes the second half of the album to tinker with the template. On numbers like “4th Dimensional Transitional” and “Of Moons, Birds & Monsters,” we get the sense that MGMT is stretching its wings a bit, attempting to see what sounds it can get away with. Then it’s on to a solid one-two punch to close the record: the space-folk stylings of “The Handshake” followed by the final charge of “Future Reflections.”
One of the more notable elements of Oracular Spectacular is its preoccupation with youth, both lost and found. Vanwyngarden and Goldwasser stand at that awkward phase of life where there’s both lost innocence to mourn and a vibrant future to anticipate. (They’re also about my age, which might make this album more relevant to me than it would to older ears.) But regardless, it’s a confident debut, one that features two young musicians reveling in their abilities and perhaps discovering ones they didn’t know they had.