The Return and Demystification of Jeff Mangum

Last Thursday night, 500 indie-rock fans packed into Le Poisson Rouge in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village for a marathon seven-hour show, a benefit to raise money for Tall Dwarfs co-founder Chris Knox, who suffered a series of strokes last year. By all accounts, the show was an unqualified success. Tickets sold out within minutes, over $40,000 was raised for Knox’s recovery and fans were treated to a night of outstanding performances from some of indie-rock’s leading lights. Yo La Tengo turned in a set of mesmerizingly atmospheric indie-pop and also played in various configurations behind other musicians, most notably Portastatic’s Mac McCaughan. The Clean played their first Stateside gig since 2007, with Robert Scott and David Kilgour playing solo sets as well. And Sharon Van Etten sang a series of deeply felt, richly melancholic songs with a powerful, mournful voice that at times recalled that of Jeff Mangum.

Speaking of Mangum, there was little doubt as to who the night’s most eagerly anticipated performer was. Though he’s popped up from time to time at friends’ gigs to sing a song or two, the elusive Neutral Milk Hotel frontman hadn’t played a proper show since 2001, when he performed in New Zealand at Knox’s behest. In the intervening years, he has largely avoided the public eye and in his absence, his myth has only grown. Neutral Milk Hotel’s 1998 masterpiece In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is now held in even higher regard than it was upon its release and as it has been discovered by a new generation of fans, tales of Mangum’s commanding performances have become the stuff of legend.

A decade’s worth of anticipation can encourage lofty, even unrealistic, expectations. Yet on Thursday night, Mangum easily sidestepped the mythos that has, in some ways, come to overshadow his music. Far from the eccentric recluse that he has been made out to be, Mangum seemed comfortable, relaxed, even happy, to be back on stage. Strumming a beat-up looking acoustic guitar and sitting about two feet back from a room mic (the only form of amplification used during his set), he rocked back and forth in his chair with eyes squeezed shut, belting out a series of beautiful, haunting songs that filled the room even without traditional amplification.

Though tense at first, the crowd slowly thawed over the course of Mangum’s set and eventually came to treat the singer with familiarity rather than reverence. Much of the credit here is due to the show’s organizer, Ben Goldberg, who worked tirelessly to discourage scalping, banned the use of any and all recording devices and implored fans to curb the urge to document and simply enjoy the performance (“Just soak it in, let the glory of the moment wash over you, and then spend the rest of your lives reminiscing at how great it was that you are alive and were there,” he wrote in an email two days before the show). While nearly all of the audience members heeded Goldberg’s advice, in the days since the performance, a few shaky camera-phone videos have surfaced, none of which manage to capture the communion between performer and audience that held a crowd of 500 in rapt attention for 25 minutes.

Contrary to much of the pre-show speculation, Mangum played a crowd-pleasing, if brief, set, touching on some of the best-loved songs in the Neutral Milk Hotel catalogue. He opened with the eight-minute epic “Oh Comely”, the opening chords of which incited many to cheer loudly, before being hushed by those in the front rows who eyed Mangum anxiously, as if he were a wild animal we had to be careful not to spook. Digging deeper, Mangum next played an extended version of “A Baby For Pree”, which bled into “Where You’ll Find Me Now”, both from Neutral Milk Hotel’s 1996 debut LP. By this point, his booming voice sounded rich and assured, even more developed, perhaps, than on those late ’90s bootlegs. As my friend Dave observed, wherever Mangum has been for the last decade, it’s clear that he’s been singing.

During “Two-Headed Boy Pt. 2”, the spare meditation on mortality and impermanence that closes Aeroplane, a few scattered fans could be heard singing under their breath, either self-consciously or involuntarily. By the time Mangum had launched into the bright, life-affirming “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea”, this smattering of voices had grown into a chorus, one that held Mangum’s voice aloft during the song’s soaring refrain.

Returning to the stage amid deafening applause, Mangum asked naively, “Do you guys know ‘Engine’?” before inviting anyone who knew the words to sing along. “It sounds beautiful, please keep going”, he said midway through the group sing-along, a wide grin breaking out across his face. As he left the stage, he was positively beaming, as were most of the fans in attendance.

In the years since the disbanding of Neutral Milk Hotel, much of the discussion surrounding Mangum has been speculative in nature. Fans the world over want to know why Mangum disappeared and if and when he will return, tour and write and release new material. Yet, for one night, the focus was again placed where it belongs, on the songs themselves. Who Jeff Mangum is or where he’s been didn’t seem quite so important during the performance — what mattered was that for 25 minutes, a few hundred of us were lucky enough to experience Mangum’s songs the way they were meant to be heard. Watching him greet friends and admirers after the performance, it became immaculately clear that Jeff Mangum is more than just a living legend — he’s a man, just like any other. And maybe that isn’t such a bad thing.