In 2011 MGMT were still fresh into a risky rebrand. After selling a million copies of their debut Oracular Spectacular, one of the biggest albums of indie rock’s blockbuster era, they swiftly pruned their audience with 2010’s contentious Congratulations, a record alternatingly defended as misunderstood or derided as a cop out. It may be both. Faced with the impossibility of recreating their debut’s success, the duo got ahead of the narrative: They weren’t the band that couldn’t write another “Kids.” They were the band that didn’t want to.
It was against that background of disappointed fans and unconvinced critics that MGMT were commissioned to write an original composition to accompany the Guggenheim Museum’s retrospective of installation artist Maurizio Cattelan. Beneath a canopy of dozens of suspended sculptures, cat skeletons, and taxidermied horses, the duo performed this set of all-new music twice, first at the exhibit’s November 10 private opening, then at its public debut the following day. “The art exhibition is done in a completely original way, so it deserves music which is completely original,” the band said.
The optics certainly worked for a band telegraphing its turn from pop in favor of art. At the time, MGMT were trying to tie their of-the-moment electro-pop to a deeper tradition of psychedelia; a few weeks earlier they’d covered a Pink Floyd deep cut on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon and released a compilation of obscure psych music. And on their Guggenheim set, released 11 years later as the live album 11-11-11, they floated new ways to balance their melody-forward sensibilities with their artier, more exploratory instincts.
For a set intended for such a limited audience, there’s a lot of creativity here. At its most inspired, 11-11-11 teases what could have been a lost MGMT album, although in its mellower lulls and boxy acoustics the recording sounds more like what it is: background music for an art show. Generally the songs with vocals are the most formal. “Invocation” and “I Am Not Your Home” cast the oblique shadows of Radiohead, with Andrew VanWyngarden’s voice taking on shades of Thom Yorke’s alien sneer.
The set’s many instrumental pieces, meanwhile, frolic into sheer whimsy. “Forest Elf” plays like celestial on-hold music, while “Whistling Through the Graveyard” conjures old children’s Christmas music by way of circus calliopes and lost exotica records. There’s a generous amount of kitsch, which seems like an appropriate accompaniment for an exhibit of Cattelan, an artist whose work gestures toward the subversive but often scans as cartoonish caprice. The surf-country twang of “Under the Porch” could pass as the theme song to an imagined one-season 1960s Western.
11-11-11 inevitably takes on a different context than it would have if the band hadn’t waited over a decade to release it, since now we know how their arc played out. The duo’s most recent studio album, 2018’s Little Dark Age, marked a return to hook-forward pop fit for dance parties and after bars. As a record, it’s fine, but as a career move, it felt like a retreat. As taxing as MGMT’s left turns could be, they were never dull—they were one of the last big-ticket indie bands that took genuine risks. 11-11-11 invites nostalgia for when this band was still torn between its impulse to entertain and its personal mission to challenge.