By Emilie Medland-Marchen
CALGARY – An intimate performance from 2009 indie darling Molly Nilsson to a still crowd opened the night for MGMT’s recent Calgary performance at the Big Four Building. But when Nilsson left the stage, suddenly a canopy of overhead fairy lights flickered to life. It was a dreamy backdrop to a surreal and nostalgic performance from psychedelia duet MGMT, who performed to a bloated crowd on May 9.
It’s difficult to think of a band more emblematic of late aughts hipster culture than MGMT. Their trifecta of synth-heavy bangers — ‘Time to Pretend’, ‘Kids’ and ‘Electric Feel’ — from 2007’s album Oracular Spectacular were essentials to every cafe playlist in the era of manic pixies and bespectacled lumberjacks. And despite the release of a new album this year, it was these song that proved to be crowd pleasers at their Calgary show.
The atmosphere was surreal as fans echoed each line of ‘Kids’ — including the song’s organ choral crescendo — back at Ben Goldwasser and Andrew VanWyngarden. It’s been over ten years since the overwhelming success of Oracular Spectacular, and MGMT is aware of the astounding popularity of these three songs. Yet as the opening notes to ‘Time to Pretend’ washed over the audience, you couldn’t help but notice how worn out Wyngarden and Goldwasser seemed by their seminal hits. As a band who was defined by their very early success — and has continually attempted to shed their early pop identity with meanders into psychedelia and experimental electronica — the enduring nature of their 2007 work seemed uninspiring to VanWyngarden and Goldwasser, and at times even tedious.
But the energy picked up significantly as the band weaved through 2018’s Little Dark Age. Performances of ‘Me and Michael’ and ‘When You Die’ were high points of the night. VanWyngarden straddled a stationary bike as he performed ‘She Works Out to Much’, and the introductory ‘Little Dark Age’ was accompanied by Castlevania-esque gothic organs.
The band’s backdrop was fittingly colourful, featuring floral bursts and roman iconography, including two cathedral columns placed on the far ends of the stage. The choice of setting indicated how self-aware the band truly is. Gone are the days of the late aught’s hipster aesthetic, and MGMT seems to not only be aware of this fact, but actively revelling in its irony.
While Little Dark Age has been critically touted as a return to form for the band, the lyricism of the album indicates that this may very well be the last we see before MGMT steps away from the limelight. They may have once been the frontrunners of a music empire — as their stage set suggested — but those days have dissipated alongside an era of hipsterdom that no-one recognized was fleeting.
The band chose to close out the night with the final song from their latest release, ‘Hand It Over’, a ballad that evokes a bittersweet sadness regarding the band’s rampant fame. VanWyngarden cood, “the smart ones exit early / And the rest hope for a shoulder” in a poignant juncture that was utterly self-deferential. As the crowd echoed the chorus line “hand it over” back to MGMT, it was an astute moment from a band that seemed to be saying their final farewells.
After cries for an encore from the crowd, Goldwasser and VanWyngarden returned to the stage. The band played two more songs — ‘When You’re Small’ from Little Dark Age, and Oracular Spectacular’s ‘Youth’ — both of which went unrecognized by much of the crowd. But the last three songs of the set did function as an ending of sorts. After lamenting about the price of fame on ‘When You’re Small’, VanWyngarden referenced a lesser-known track, ‘Youth’ from Oracular Spectacular. But interestingly, even this song is about the fairweather trends of youth, as VanWyngarden to the crowd “the youth is starting to change / Are you starting to change? / Are you?” The celebrity veil of MGMT’s fame lifted and they more resembled a local hipster collective than megastarlets.
As MGMT waved goodbye and stepped off the stage, the bittersweet reflection on fame and the manic darkness of their new album hung heavy in the air. But through it all, VanWyngarden’s humble nature rang true.
“Thank you all for being here,” he repeated after each song. “Thank you very much.”Big Four Building, MGMT, Molly Nilsson, Oracular Spectacular