Sometimes an album’s lyrical content alludes to themes that explicitly or tangentially reflect the experiences and mentalities of younger people. Sometimes an album features a sound that evokes a youthful energy, like through springy chords or energetically chaotic melodies. Often the mere happenstance of an album’s release date aligning with the listener’s childhood can grant it a youthful quality in and of itself. MGMT managed to fulfill this trifecta as they unearthed the anthology of adolescent anthems better known as Oracular Spectacular. Though this quality of the album is obvious enough in isolation, it is impossible to ignore when the album is held alongside MGMT’s most recent full-length creation, Little Dark Age.
The differences in age begin to reveal themselves long before the first second of audio is played. Oracular Spectacular’s tracklist alone sets the tempo for the type of energy the record conveys as tracks like “Kids” and “The Youth” catch the listener’s attention as they hover above the play button. Conversely, “When You Die” and “Days That Got Away” indicate that Little Dark Age lacks the upbeat, carefree emotions of its predecessor of 11 years. But the forwardness of these indications does not undermine the substance of the actual songs, which further their titles’ indications of distinct points of maturity while contributing to equally distinct and high-quality albums.
In the very first verse of Oracular Spectacular, MGMT wastes no time caricaturing themselves as reckless young adults; they do so in a manner so hyperbolic that one would expect their words to come from a sitcom elder before telling the neighborhood delinquents to vacate the lawn. In the opening seconds of “Time to Pretend,” after asserting that they’re in the prime of their lives, MGMT have laid out their goals — getting rich quick, driving luxury cars, doing a medley drugs, marrying models, the works. As fluttery synths continue to remind the reader not to worry, MGMT defend their shortsightedness, pointing out that a short but eventful life beats out a monotonous job anyday. The song then goes from adolescent to altogether childlike, with the lyrics now reminiscing of playground days and an ultimate carelessness that couldn’t even be touched by later aspirations of living carelessly. Those were the days.
MGMT’s discussion of what they wanted to do takes on a sharply different meaning when it appears in the Little Dark Age song “One Thing Left to Try.” The more distorted and solemn synths that permeate through this album help the group convey their maturity and mortality on this track and others. MGMT profess their fear of dying knowing they had something left on their bucket list and imply that there will inevitably be something left on this list. Yes, this is the same MGMT that wants nothing more than to die young after a bout of euphoria and could not be less interested in the nuances of adulthood. But dying young and experiencing highs still remain on their mind, as though MGMT are unsure if they are fully ready to abandon their prior thrill-seeking, indifferent-to-death mentality. The bridge of the song finds itself in a tug-of-war as “Do you want to keep us alive?” and “Do you want to feel alive” are repeated over and over, as though the two are paradoxically mutually exclusive. This segment may hint that MGMT are scantly more mature than they were 11 years ago, but really, it parallels the nostalgia they expressed in “Time to Pretend.” Just as they once fantasized about the comfort of a childhood lacking responsibilities, they now remember the excitement of being a reckless, adrenaline-seeking adolescent. There is always something in the future left to do, and there is always something to reflect on from the past.
And there truly are concepts worth reflecting on from MGMT’s past. There are insightful moments throughout Oracular Spectacular, but they can be overshadowed by the more pervasive and less overtly thought-provoking dialogue. Perhaps this is reflective of adolescents — we are capable of birthing great ideas when we put our minds to it, but we’re not always putting our minds to it. There’s no denying that the notions of living in the moment established in “Time to Pretend” play a key role in the duration of the album; their interlockings with upbeat chords and psychedelic, dream-like sounds and imagery give the album its recognizably youthful sound. But the progressive warnings and beliefs sprinkled throughout the record are equally representative of the un-aged vigor that the album exudes. Throughout “Kids,” MGMT repeatedly urge the listener to be sustainable and wary of their usage of the Earth’s resources. “Control yourself, take only what you need from it.” Their proposed wariness extends to monetary resources as well. In “The Handshake,” MGMT stresses that people’s losses in the acquisition of great wealth can outweigh the wealth itself. “Black credit cards and shoes / You can call all the people you want / But it’s you who’s being used.” Maybe they’re more than just adolescent heathens.
The problems tackled in Little Dark Age tend to be more individualized, but they are also the ones that younger people — especially those described in MGMT’s debut album — are content not to concern themselves with just yet. The younger MGMT seem more than content with lustful, passionate exchanges like the one in “Electric Feel,” but Little Dark Age is punctuated by the mixed results of sought relationships. “She Works Out Too Much” and “When You Die” highlight the frustrations of someone who is at the age to settle down but can’t find success. Fortunately, the cycle might be broken in the `80s sounding piece “Me and Michael,” as the title pair are “solid as they come” and may end up having the enduring long-term relationship that many in their thirties yearn for.
There is another recently-developed, close attachment analyzed in Little Dark Age. “TSLAMP” stands for “Time Spent Looking At My Phone,” and it is time that MGMT resents. Often disregarded as a boomer-centric ideology projected upon younger generations, the condemnation of phone usage in the song is actually self-critical for MGMT. The group expresses personal disgust — over an inability to look away from the phone, over a terror at the prospect of its battery dying, over a love for the inanimate object. This exemplifies the album’s overarching nostalgia. MGMT recognize that their struggles with mortality, relationships and phones were much less prevalent in Oracular Spectacular’s 2007. But they accept that they’re at a little dark age, and they’re working and willing to get past it.