In 2011, MGMT was still fresh in a risky name change. After selling a million copies of their debut album Spectacular Oracularone of the biggest albums of indie rock’s blockbuster era, they quickly pruned their following with the controversial 2010 albums Congratulations, a record alternately defended as misunderstood or derided as a cop. It may be both. Facing the impossibility of recreating the success of their debut album, the duo forged ahead of the narrative: This wasn’t the band that couldn’t write another “Kids.” It was the group that didn’t want to.
It was against this backdrop of disappointed fans and unconvinced critics that MGMT was commissioned to write an original composition to accompany the Guggenheim Museum retrospective of installation artist Maurizio Cattelan. Beneath a canopy of dozens of suspended sculptures, stuffed cat and horse skeletons, the duo performed this set of all-new music twice, first at the exhibition’s private opening on November 10, then in his public debut the following day. “The art exhibition is done in a totally original way, so it deserves totally original music,” the band said.
The optics certainly worked for a band telegraphing their turn from pop to art. At the time, MGMT was trying to tie their current electro-pop into a deeper tradition of psychedelia; a few weeks earlier, they had covered a deep Pink Floyd 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 a live album 11-11-11they came up with new ways to balance their melodic sensibilities with their artier, more exploratory instincts.
For a set aimed at such a small audience, there’s a lot of creativity here. In its most inspired form, 11-11-11 teases what could have been a lost MGMT album, though in its softer lulls and boxy acoustics the recording feels more like what it is: background music for an art exhibit. Generally, songs with vocals are the most formal. “Invocation” and “I Am Not Your Home” cast the slanting shadows of Radiohead, Andrew VanWyngarden’s voice taking on shades of Thom Yorke’s alien sneer.
The many instrumental pieces of the ensemble, for their part, frolic in pure fantasy. “Forest Elf” plays like celestial music on hold, while “Whistling Through the Graveyard” conjures up old-school Christmas music through circus calliopes and lost exotic records. There’s a generous amount of kitsch, which seems like a fitting accompaniment to an exhibition by Cattelan, an artist whose work tends towards the subversive but often scans like a cartoonish whim. The surf-country twang of “Under the Porch” could pass for the theme song to an imaginary Western from a 1960s season.
11-11-11 inevitably takes on a different context than it would if the band hadn’t waited over a decade to release it, since we now know how their arc played out. The duo’s last studio album, that of 2018 little dark age, marked the return of catchy pop suitable for dance parties and after bars. As a record, it’s fine, but as a career move, it felt like retirement. As strenuous as MGMT’s left turns can be, they were never dull – they were one of the last big-budget indie bands to take real risks. 11-11-11 invites us to nostalgia for the time when this group was still torn between its desire to entertain and its personal mission of challenge.