#494: MGMT, "Oracular Spectacular" (2007)

But there is really nothing, nothing we can do,
Love must be forgotten, life can always start anew.

Sometime in 2005 or 2006, maybe it was spring or summer—I’m not sure but I know it was warm outside because I spent most of Of Montreal’s set sitting on the patio, my ears ringing from the deafening volume in the tiny venue—I bought my now-soon-to-be ex-wife Julia tickets to a show at a now-defunct venue in Charlottesville, VA called the Satellite Ballroom. We’d been dating for a just few months, and I knew next to nothing about Of Montreal outside of the couple CDs Julia would often play in her car. I was still freshly reeling, wide-eyed in the new-to-me world of indie music that had burst open a year or so before when my adolescent love affair with Phish had finally come to a sudden, unexpected end—the result of some sort of internal tidal shift, certainly the subject for another time, another essay.

We made the hour-and-a-half-long trip to Charlottesville from Richmond, where Julia had just recently moved into a small two-bedroom apartment on Main Street with me and my best friend and bandmate—a comically bad living situation full of wildly varying degrees of maturity and conflicting life schedules (Julia had just started her first year teaching English in public schools, I had just begun my first year of undergrad, and my friend was working nights at a local bar). We drove her old blue Chevy Cavalier, also now-defunct, having been struck and totaled last year by a drunk teenager, oddly enough right outside of our old apartment on Main Street . . . sometimes I’d swear I’ve been wandering in circles for my entire life, the past always echoing through the present.

The Satellite Ballroom had the unquestionable vibe of a public school cafeteria—the kind of place that felt like it should be hosting a low-budget high school prom. They sold bottles of Yuengling and Starr Hill beer out of coolers from behind a counter that was clearly intended to serve as a snack bar. I wasn’t even twenty-one yet and they wouldn’t sell Julia, three years older than me, two beers for herself, so she snuck sips of Starr Hill Amber to me over the course of the night, causing me to feel uncomfortably self-aware of our age gap. When the opening act took the stage—a band neither of us had ever heard of—there were only a handful of people hanging around, so we went front and center to watch.

Two shaggy-haired guys rolled confidently onto the stage looking like they’d just gotten out of bed. One of them was wearing an oversized bright blue hoodie, khaki shorts and black Converse All Stars, the other a plain white V-neck t-shirt and jeans—very normal looking young guys (turns out they were both the same age as Julia), except that the one in the t-shirt was also wearing a red velvet cape tied with a golden tassel around his neck. 

One of them hit some keys on a laptop and the room began to fill like a hot air balloon with the blooming sounds of lo-fi synth—bubbling, purring, chirping like an analog world waking up in a digital spring, then four measures of a simple melody—happy but for the slight lip-quiver of vibrato before a bass-heavy drumbeat dropped to kick off the verse. And then they were dancing, singing, jumping back and forth around the stage with the shameless enthusiasm of teenagers in front of their bedroom mirrors—

I’m feelin’ rough, I’m feelin' raw in the prime of my life.
Let’s make some music, make some money, find some models for wives.

They were silly, they didn’t care, they weren’t even playing instruments, but their songs were really good, and turned out to be surprisingly memorable.

Control yourself, they sang, take only what you need from it / a family of trees wanting to be haunted—a chorus belted by two anonymous guys that stuck with me until, a couple years later, I started hearing them everywhere, when they turned up on SNL and David Letterman with a full band, all done up in elaborate, what I might call hippie-jungle-glam outfits—in all their freaky goodness, with a Grammy nomination, opening for Paul McCartney, an admitted fan, when the phrase “this generation’s Sgt. Pepper’s” started getting thrown around in reviews for Oracular Spectacular—when all that pretending turned, perhaps reluctantly, into something real.

Those shaggy-haired guys, of course, were MGMT on their first tour after releasing the Time to Pretend EP and, although I really enjoyed their set that night, I didn’t make much of an effort to find out who they were. At the time, I had some arguably high-minded ideals of what it meant to have a band or to play music at all and MGMT didn’t seem to fit in with any of that. With their prerecorded tracks, synth-heavy song production and seeming unwillingness to take themselves seriously as musicians, I think I was probably too ashamed to admit how good they made me feel. There was an earnestness in their performance and in their music that I don’t think I fully understood at the time—an honesty in the way they confronted not only a rapidly changing music industry, but the universally terrifying temporality of life.

Passed the point of love
shattered and untied
waiting to pick up the pieces
that make it all alright.

But pieces of what?
Pieces of what?
Pieces of what
doesn’t matter anymore.

Pieces of what we used to call home, the song ultimately decides. When Julia and I separated five months ago, I moved into an apartment with a new friend and bandmate right next door to the first place I lived in Richmond ten years ago, when Julia and I first met working together at a coffee shop downtown. The month we separated, I graduated with my MFA and started working at another coffee shop—circles upon circles, and yet every time I come around, something has changed, something is new. Ten years later, I’m financially and professionally right back where I was at age nineteen, with virtually nothing to show for the life I lived through my twenties—only what I have inside, these memories, the person I’ve become, which are as malleable and unreliable as love. This essay isn’t about seeing MGMT before they were famous. This is about growing up, spending ten years of my life settling into the idea of the rest of a life with one person and having that suddenly shattered and the rapid restructuring, the self-reckoning and the swimming back to shore that has gone on since.

When I listen to Oracular Spectacular now, I understand something about these changes—something about the reality of moving forward in this world. Perhaps it’s just the way they situate earnest, innocent lyrics about childhood—I’ll miss the playgrounds and the animals and digging up worms / I’ll miss the comfort of my mother and the weight of the world—against lines full of tongue-in-cheek irony in regards to the loss of innocence we repeatedly experience as we grow as people, all melodically phrased over instrumentation that makes me want to move my body and celebrate how simultaneously difficult and wonderful life can be. Built into the album’s mission statement is a pre-acceptance of failure and the choice to revel in it.

The models will have children, we’ll get a divorce,
we’ll find some more models, everything must run its course.

Already, in my memory of that show, as in so much of our history together, Julia is beginning to slip away—as the past attempts to keep up, always circling the present, she is becoming a stranger in my mind. Six months ago, if someone had asked me what it’s like to be married, I, comfortable and secure, would have given some overly self-assured, idealistic response about the difficulties and rewards of truly working with another person over a long period of time. I would have felt so quietly right, and perhaps I would have been—too often our best really isn’t enough. Going back now, standing in front of that stage, a strange person beside me receding into a crowd of other strange people, what remains is a celebratory music echoing out through the room, keeping that memory alive and connecting my past to my present.

—Doug Fuller