Every so often, Spotify uses this feature where it plays notes about a song as it plays – they call it “Beyond the Lyrics” or something. I caught this for the first time (yes, seriously) while listening to MGMT’s “Electric Feel.” Those notes stopped scrolling over the music the last couple times, so I’m stuck referencing something that touches on one corner of that same story - broadly, “Electric Feel” was the first song for which the band wrote lyrics. What I can’t confirm is what I remember as the gist of Spotify’s back-story – i.e., that the lyrics were kind of a goof, just some playful somethings that happened to match the music. For me, that adds up. Everything about MGMT feels light; sometimes I toyed with the idea it’s all a little tongue-in-cheek.
It is, however, worth flagging a quote from/about the band that I can find:
“We tend to be inspired a lot by artists that switch genrés each album. Each song is different. (Anglo-Dutch experimental Rock band) Legendary Pink Dots are like that.”
Read the lyrics for “Electric Feel” for yourself and think whatever you like (I mostly get basic pop song - e.g. it's about fucking). To that statement on inspiration, it comes through on MGMT’s three main LPs, Oracular Spectacular (2007), Congratulations (2010), and MGMT (2013). “Switching genres” overstates things – it’s not like they go country, hip hop, then metal, or anything – but each of those three albums still sound arrestingly distinct from the other two. Whatever I think of the details, they deserve credit for that…
… you can probably see where this is going…
When I tweeted a poll about relating to one’s generation a couple days back, trying to wrap my head around MGMT prompted it. It’s one thing to know what they sound like, but I was fishing for the something deeper, and here’s that: does MGMT sound…normal, I guess? Or at least like people expect? If so, where do they fit musically? (Or can we collectively stop attempting to classify a band as this sub-genre, or that spinoff sound - e.g., “Dutch-American Alternative Pop Rock Electronica”? Is that even ballpark?) When I hear MGMT on the radio (and it’s been a while), they play on 94.7 KNRK, and that’s Portland’s “alternative” radio station, but is that sound alternative? Does that word have meaning anymore, because alternative to what? On the most fundamental level, my real question boiled down to something people sometimes wonder as they get older: is that what The Kids like these days?
While it’s awful in just about every other way – e.g. it dubs MGMT “psychedelic rock,” a pigeon-hole that I think only fits for Congratulations and, even then only a couple songs; also, why are the bulk of the notes on each album mostly about where the band played and who with? – the band’s Wikipedia page gives at least an answer to that last question. The various chart positions and accolades are nice and all, but here’s the one that caught my eye: “They were also named as Last.fm’s most played new artist of 2008 in their Best of 2008 list.” Yeah, that’s in the past, but that tells me they had their time, if only with Oracular Spectacular.
Most of MGMT’s famous songs came off Oracular Spectacular – or that’s the Top 5 Songs List on their Spotify profile page implies; only “Congratulations” comes from a different album (Congratulations, in fact; keeping up?). That’s probably the best possible lead into examining their oeuvre, because, my guess is, when most people play MGMT in their head, it's something from Oracular Spectacular that plays. Congratulations, or at least the balance of it, has a different sound, and MGMT sounds like a lightly depressed cheerleader next to the other two, but I’ll start with Congratulations.
First, if the “psychedelic rock” tag that Wikipedia’s author(s) tagged them with came from anywhere, it’s probably Congratulations. In today’s listen (and this came after a couple others earlier in the week), I struggled to source the inspirations behind their first several. For “It’s Working,” I went with “washed out ‘Cecilia Ann’” (Pixies song, if mixed with “Velouria” on the vocals), but the next song, “Song for Dan Treacy” seemed to mix sounds from surf and early-to-mid-60s pop. Neither of those felt quite right, but I landed on my best possible comparison with “Flash Delirium,” a song that, for me, recalled Love, a late 60s/early 70s band anyone who’s seen Wes Anderson’s Bottle Rocket has at least heard. The similarity actually goes deeper: "Flash Delirium," and the overall tone, tracks most closely to the songs written by Love’s “white guy,” Brian Andrew MacLean. Here’s the best sample of what I mean (at least that I have on hand; and, while I'm there, here's Love's better half); you be the judge.
Congratulations is a pretty confident album. My favorite song on there – and the only MGMT tune I slipped into a playlist - is the half-camp, and clearly-titled, ode “Brian Eno.” Most of the album’s ambition went into “Siberian Breaks,” an impressively theatrical 11-minute opus, one that changes mood and tempo enough to hold one’s interest, if only barely. The title track, the last song on the album as it happens, closes things with melancholy, if worn lightly. That spoke to the future, as it turns out, or maybe “Lady Dada’s Nightmare" did…
MGMT released its eponymous album in 2013 and…look, they lost me with this one. While they absolutely held true to honoring variety, MGMT doesn’t feel uncomfortable so much as the audio equivalent of someone wearing clothing that fits them, but doesn’t suit them. MGMT doesn’t do gloom well, basically, and you can’t unhear that once you notice it. It’s not all bad. My only complaint about “Astro-Mancy,” a decent little “noise” piece, is that it’s followed by “I Love You Too, Death” and almost imperceptibly (as in, blink and you’ll miss the transition). Only one song really lands for me is “Alien Days” – I actually really love that intro – but I could pick up the rest of the songs, wipe something gross on them, and rudely discard them, but that hardly feels like a service. As I said, it’s not even close to terrible; it’s just not for me.
But what to make of Oracular Spectacular, the album that, with Spotify’s Top 5 at my back, I’m dubbing their defining work? It’s also the only one in my actual “bins” (as in it’s the only one I ever took home…feels like I should note that more prominently, given the name of this project), and that goes a long way to shaping how I viewed MGMT – e.g. as a pop band. I don’t care what station plays their songs: Oracular Spectacular is a pop album. Thanks to my stupid, personal shorthand of slipping every song with keyboards into a specific genre, I have long view MGMT as 80s throwback pop (here's what weird: "Brian Eno" might best fit that narrow categorization). After a week with them, that label fits worse than their eponymous album. I’ll stand by that pop label, however: I mean, what else can you call “Electric Feel,” or “Time to Pretend,” or “Kids”?
One song – “The Youth” – tangled me deepest in that big question about the zeitgeist. No matter how strained the association, repeated listens to that compelled me to check to see when Fun’s “We Are Young” came out. Vast differences in scale aside, both songs share a slower, almost drinking song tempo and both possess the concomitant whiff of an anthem. “We Are Young” came out in 2012, as it happens, five whole years after Ocular Spectacular. But their biggest commonality comes with where one tends to hear them: on “alternative radio” (yeah, yeah, “We Are Young” played on some straight pop stations). As much as anything else, MGMT read as artists reasonably near the center of what the people who decide such things defined as “alternative music” in the late 2000s, and even now. My word/phrase for that is “pop-inflected” – basically, that in the cross-pollination between “rock” and “pop,” pop is pretty clearly winning. No one needs to take a side in that battle – holy fuck, do we have enough to argue about – but it does complicate the meaning of the word “alternative,” not least by begging the question already stated above, alternative to what? If we arrive at a place where “alternative” means nothing more or less than music that fewer people, on average, listens to…well, that warps the crap out of most existing definitions of “alternative." It even devalues it a little.
That’s a good way to close this out, as it happens. My two favorite songs on Oracular Spectacular are “Weekend Wars” and “Pieces of What” – and I really need someone to confirm or deny that the music in that isn’t the same as the stuff that DJ Bahler put under his remix of Carly Rae Jepson’s “Call Me Maybe” (which...I can't find; crap, it's just a different song, more personal). Listen to those two – and “Alien Days” and even “Brian Eno” – you should get some sense I can generally fail to connect with them, while still respecting their work. The difference isn't enormous, but it's there for me in that those songs feel like paths not taken. And these guys do have range. Those songs sound a little more naked than the rest of their work, and they pull them off nicely - even early in their career. Not better than their electric, poppy stuff – honestly, these aren’t just pop songs, but good pop songs – but that sound plays better in my ears.