It is difficult to say just how much all of this MEANS. Did you know, in my entire career as a critic of music, I have never used all caps in a review? You didn’t know it, because why would you, and I’m not sure it’s even true—but it definitely FEELS true. Jeff Mangum playing music again is an all caps event.
Mangum, the songwriting force behind Neutral Milk Hotel, last performed with that group in 1998. Since then, Neutral Milk Hotel’s second and final proper album, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea (1998), has achieved a level of critical acclaim and such impassioned devotion among its fans that the record’s place—and that of Mangum himself, the reclusive anti-rockstar—in the sphere of modern pop music can only be described as mythic. Ironically, the cult that has grown up around Mangum and Aeroplane gained much of its fuel from the singer’s virtual disappearance from the public eye. The less Mangum presented of himself, the more his fans could project onto him the various qualities they needed him to exhibit—they could make him, in other wants, the perfect rock star, someone who existed solely for his strange, deeply personal art and cared not an ounce for the fame and praise that came along with that art’s ability to so loudly resonate with its audience.
That stage of Mangum’s career is, finally, over. I saw him, sitting in a chair on Washington’s ornate Lincoln Theatre, with a real person haircut and real person sneakers. In making his return to playing live music, Mangum—and one gets the sense that no one feels more aware of this than the man himself—has again opened himself up to a line of communication with his audience. Now, he has to somehow brace himself against the flood of pent-up adulation storming toward him for an hour-and-change every evening onstage. And, really, who wouldn’t be a little frightened by all those expectations?
Mangum opened his set, as he was once in the habit of doing, with Aeroplane’s immensely sad “Two-Headed Boy Pt. Two”. As most critics have noticed when writing about his return, hearing Mangum’s distinctive voice—a deceptively strong tenor that seems to come in equal measure from his nasal cavities and deep in his chest—in a room while able to see the human being actually creating those noises gave me a surreal thrill. Again, if this sounds overblown, consider Mangum’s own acknowledgement of the way people likely engage with his music: “You sing along at home,” he told the crowd, “so there’s no reason not to sing here”. Like me, most of the audience at the Lincoln Theatre had spent many an evening trying to imitate Mangum’s croon, until all of his odd, often opaque lyrics were committed to heart for good. And there’s something about Mangum’s songs that practically begs for the listener to add his or her voice to their melodies. They are built for singing along.
The D.C. crowd seemed unsure whether or not, despite Mangum’s permission, this was actually acceptable behavior. You could blame it on the Theatre’s stately—and stifling—atmosphere, or D.C. crowds’ legendary reticence to show much emotion at all during a show, but probably people just felt too damned reverent of the guy in front of them to belt his songs back at him out of tune. (This writer included, by the way, though I—like much of the crowd—warmed up about halfway through the set.) Mangum seemed appreciative of us, anyway, telling the audience that releasing songs feels like tossing “messages in a bottle” out into the world. It’s nice, he said, to see people saw the message delivered.
Oh, the songs—right. Mangum sounded as wonderful at the Lincoln Theatre as he did nearly fifteen years ago, his voice still able to hit the high notes and the low notes alike in “Oh Comely”. Mangum’s Elephant 6 colleague (and ex-Neutral Milk Hotel player), Julian Koster, added singing saw to “Engine”, and he and the rest of his band, openers The Music Tapes, brought brass and a floor tom to a surprising rendition of instrumental “The Fool”. But Mangum played the majority of the show alone, rotating through a series of acoustic guitars and cutting right through the banter to move things along at a quick clip. Some songs, particularly “Holland, 1945”—so rollicking with drums and horns on Aeroplane—lost some momentum in their solo translation, but Mangum’s lack of accompaniment allowed the sturdy skeletons of his songs to stand on their own.
Mangum played all of Aeroplane, save for “The Communist Daughter”, interspersed with material from Neutral Milk Hotel’s debut album, On Avery Island (1995), and some fan favorites that never saw proper album release (“Engine”, “Little Birds”). The songs, unadorned, sounded to me as vital in a live setting as they do on record—even more so, since Mangum’s work seems meant for sharing.
I don’t know where Mangum and Neutral Milk Hotel go from here. The only thing that seems more daunting to me than returning to the stage after fourteen years would be returning to the recording studio. If nothing else, it seems a gift—no, really—to be able to go see Mangum play, and to finally be able to yell some thanks at him and send some applause his way. When an audience member toward the front shouted, “Don’t stay gone for so long next time,” Mangum responded, “What did you want me to do?”. That was his knee-jerk reaction, the protectiveness he’d practiced for so long. But after a moment, he continued, “No, I know your heart’s in the right place when you say that. Seriously”. I have to say, our hearts really are.
Two-Headed Boy Pt. Two
Gardenhead / Leave Me Alone
The King of Carrot Flowers, Pts. I, II, III
Two Headed Boy
In the Aeroplane Over the Sea (encore)
Song Against Sex (second encore)