It was around 2008, maybe July. By some happy accident, or fate, or whatever, MGMT got fucking huge. Like, huge huge. You couldn’t switch on a radio without hearing Kids or Electric Feel and this continued for many months. This made the two front men of MGMT very very sad. I’m not sure if all the piles of money they got from the car endorsements, movie soundtrack royalties and awful, awful Channel Seven show promos their songs were used on were any conciliation, but they were pissed.
You see, first and foremost, MGMT were not an ear-worm pop band. And believe me, I know what you are thinking, and yes, it is hard not to stare at dudes junk when they are wearing bike shorts. What’s that? You weren’t thinking that? Ohh… I know…you were thinking that Time to Pretend and Kids are catchier than a baseball glove covered in superglue, so how are they not classified as a pop band? Well the two ‘anthems’ that ingratiated MGMT into the popular fold were actually written in 2005-06, when their Time to Pretend EP was released. The song Electric Feel, which also curried popular favour, is catchy as fuck, but it is also as weird as fuck (fuck is the only describing word I know). Imagine what would have happened if, without the launch pad of Kids and Time to Pretend, these headband wearing freak hipsters came out and started telling all of Jason Derulo’s fans to ‘shock them like electric eels’.
You see, my argument essentially is that, like most explosions, Oracular Spectacular was somewhat of an accident. That is not to say it wasn’t deserved, or to diminish it in any way, but let us not forget, for a while Hoobastank were the coolest. It just sometimes happens.
Imagine Oracular Spectacular if Ben Goldwasser and Andrew VanWyngarden hadn’t re-recorded the best two songs from their E.P for their new album, if they had chosen to abandon the catchy songs on the E.P and go in a completely different direction. When you think about it, Kids and Time To Pretend are somewhat out of place on the debut. You have Pieces of What and Weekend Wars, (more slowly burning, acoustic driven freak-folk songs) Of Moons, Birds and Monsters, The Handshake and The Youth (songs more reminiscent of their second albums direction) and Electric Feel (unclassifiable). If this album did not feature the electro-driven, dance floor ready Kids and Time to Pretend, then it is perfectly acceptable to suggest that MGMT would have gotten exactly what they wanted.
Now what they wanted, if they are to be believed, is relative anonymity in the mainstream sphere. They wanted to be respected by fans for the music they wanted to create, not for their songs that were being remixed by some pimply DJ at an underage club. So they made a decision, not unlike a few big bands before them, to cut ties with the most financially geared (mainstream teenagers) sector of their fan-base, and with their sophomore effort, Congratulations, decided to put out an album that reflected who ‘they truly were’.
This has worked for some bands, and backfired for others. After completing three albums that essentially changed the face of British music, Damon Albarn and Blur grew tired of the Brit-Pop scene and rebelled. As they said in their fantastic documentary No Distance Left to Run, “It (Blur’s self titled album in 1997) was a big deal because up until that point, the first five rows at our concert were teenage girls.” Right from the first two tracks (The very ‘adult’ Beetlebum and the brutal if not overplayed Song 2) you can tell they are not fucking around. It went on to be one of their most quintessential albums and a flash-point in the bands career, but a ballsy move nonetheless. (One can of course point to the ‘Dylan goes electric’ to show an instance where changing a music style did alienate people, at least initially, but it is hard to tell whether Dylan was actively trying to aggravate his core folk fan base or just progress as his a musician. I’d like to think it is a little from column ‘A’ and a little from column ‘B’, but who knows what is going on inside Bob Dylan’s head. That is also a fun game to play if you are bored… ‘Guess what Bob Dylan is thinking right now!’…No matter how absurd or how mundane your guess, you are correct.)
ANYWAY, the most obvious example of a band rebelling against a fan-base and the most applicable to this MGMT example is of course Nirvana. You see, it was Nirvana that are the prime example of a band that were not ready for success, but somewhat inexplicably broke into the mainstream. After releasing an album of grunge inspired Garage Rock, record producer Butch Vig would take Cobain’s songs and add a pop sheen to them, double tracking the guitar and vocals. While Nevermind has obviously stood the test of time and is a quintessential example of the underground mixing with the mainstream, it is foretold that at the time of the albums release Cobain despised it. He apparently hated the ‘clean’ sound of it, thought that it would appeal to way to many people and wanted to rename the album ‘sheep’.
After the release and subsequent world domination of Nevermind, it became objective number one for Nirvana to alienate the popular world from their music, at least seemingly. They would appear in interviews denouncing Nevermind, calling the production ‘too polished’ and dismissing it as ‘one-dimensional’. They would outline that In Utero would be a truer reflection of their ‘real sound’, showcasing ‘both extremes’, pop and grunge. The band would appear on SNL and play the brutally titled Rape Me and the world lay in wait for the next Nirvana album.
Music critic and confirmed second coming of Jesus Chuck Klosterman remembers that in the months leading up to the album, there was a strange air surrounding its release. With all the press, the music critics and the band themselves discussing how ‘difficult’ the album was going to be, most fans actively expected to hate the album. But he would go on to explain that this weird dichotomy began to present itself. People wanted to be seen ‘getting’ the album, in fact they felt smarter for getting the album and those who didn’t were more inclined to simply pretend they did to not appear uncultured.
In reality, I absolutely love In Utero, but I love it in spite of itself. There are at least three songs that are below average, and they are only made up for by the rest of the songs (and the sublime Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge On Seattle). But I cannot fathom how the typical Nirvana fan in 1993 (remember there were tens of millions of them, and most of them preferred Lithium to Lounge Act) would have liked this album (aside from the Jedi mind-trick which played a part as Klosterman described above). Yet they remained one of the biggest bands on the planet, yet another example of a failed rebellion against a fan-base.
There are many similarities between the MGMT story and the Nirvana story. Both young bands, thrust into the limelight largely on the back of a runaway hit single that was a little bit different. Both dominated the charts then began to resent the position they were in, and began to rebel against fame with a new album. And I’m pretty sure MGMT’s drummer plays part time in the Foo Fighters.
MGMT’s path is so similar to Nirvana’s that you could swear they are reading Cobain’s quotes in their interviews. They described their first album as ‘not true to their sound’ and described the experience of fame as ‘unnatural’. In regard to their second album, Goldwasser stated “There definitely isn’t a Time To Pretend or a Kids on the album.” He went on to explain that the album was made as a cohesive album, and that he didn’t “want people hear the album as an album in order and not just figure out what are the best three tracks, download those and not listen to the rest of it”, an obvious allusion to Oracular Spectacular. When the band stated that they were not going to release ‘any’ singles of the new album, the press began to echo from 1993. MGMT’s second album was going to be just as ‘difficult’ as In Utero.
Like an absolute idiot, I believed the hype. I listened to the bands interviews, I listened to the press, I even listened to a couple of reviews, and shelved it. As a huge fan of Oracular Spectacular, I gave the band the bird and concluded that the new record was not worth my time. However, due to my predisposition for liking MGMT’s more ‘difficult’, to borrow a term from the press (my favourite tracks off Oracular are Of Moons, Birds and Monsters, The Handshake, Future Reflections and Pieces of What) as well as their pop singles, I didn’t know that Congratulations was almost the perfect album for me.
You see despite all MGMT’s machinations and posturing, they are still a very similar band from their first album, if not much better. They are armed with two more years of touring under their belt, they have dug deep into the record crate to find some new and exiting influences and more importantly, they have smartly decided that with the royalties they can earn from Kids every time it is played on a TV graduation montage, they can focus on making full, cohesive albums.
Congratulations is not perfect, but it is very good. Every single track sounds like it belongs on the album, and the band has learnt a few new tricks. Importantly, on the album centerpiece Siberian Breaks they manage to structure a truly epic song that held my attention for 12 minutes, and has done so on repeated listens. This is a field usually dominated by only Sufjan Stevens and Ricky Gervais’ podcasts, so its no small feat. Secondly, many of the new songs expertly use tension and release (I am an unabashed fan of this). The band builds tension and drama in the songs and releases it just as expertly, both in ballads like Someone’s Missing and I Found a Whistle and in up tempo songs such as Song for Dan Treacy and Flash Delirium. The whole thing makes for an engaging listen that most definitely lends itself to repeated spins.
The irony, as well, is that it is quite catchy. While not Kids catchy, the songs still have a number of hooks that draw you in. The band is wonderful at writing hooks and exploring pop rhythms because, after all, it is still MGMT.
I guess the moral of the story is, that no matter how much you rebel against your fan-base, unless you abandon music altogether and put out an album of spoken word quoting passages from The Women Weekly’s good food guide whilst accompanied by a midget playing the Peruvian flute, a band is still always going to sound a little bit like themselves. Blur still sounded like Blur, Nirvana still sounded like Nirvana and MGMT pretty much refined and improved on their core sound from their first album. Perhaps the lesson is that it isn’t the bandwagon jumpers who purchase albums, buy concert tickets and wait hours in the rain to get a drumstick signed. It is the real fans, and real fans will follow their chosen band in any direction they choose to lead them in, provided that the music is still good and there are no Peruvian flutes involved.