Jeff Mangum of Neutral Milk Hotel: 27 January 2012 - Washington D.C.

Corey Beasley

The reclusive songwriter returns for his first tour in over a decade.

Jeff Mangum
City: Washington, D.C.
Venue: Lincoln Theatre
Date: 2012-01-27

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

Holland, 1945

Gardenhead / Leave Me Alone


Little Birds

The King of Carrot Flowers, Pts. I, II, III


Oh Comely


Two Headed Boy

The Fool

In the Aeroplane Over the Sea (encore)

Song Against Sex (second encore)

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

Keep reading... Show less

Electronic music is one of the broadest-reaching genres by design, and 2017 highlights that as well as any other year on record. These are the 20 best albums.

20. Vitalic - Voyager (Citizen)

Pascal Arbez-Nicolas (a.k.a. Vitalic) made waves in the French Touch electro-house scene with his 2005 debut, OK Cowboy, which had a hard-hitting maximalist sound, but several albums later, Voyager finds him launching into realms beyond at his own speed. The quirky, wallflower vocals and guitar snippets employed throughout Voyager drop a funk that brings to mind WhoMadeWho or Matthew Dear if they had disco-pop injected between their toes. "Levitation" is as pure a slice of dance floor motivation as theoretically possible, a sci-fi gunfight with a cracking house beat sure to please his oldest fans, yet the album-as-form is equally effective in its more contemplative moments, like when Miss Kitten's vocals bring an ethereal dispassion to "Hans Is Driving" to balance out its somber vocoder or the heartfelt cover of "Don't Leave Me Now" by Supertramp. Voyager may infect you with a futuristic form of Saturday Night Fever, but afterwards, it gives you a hearty dose of aural acetaminophen to break it. - Alan Ranta

19. Antwood: Sponsored Content (Planet Mu)

Sponsored Content is a noisy, chaotic, occasionally beautiful work with a dark sense of humor that's frequently deployed to get Antwood's point across. For instance, throughout the aforementioned "Disable Ad Blocker", which sounds mostly like the creepy side of Tangerine Dream's early '80s experimental output, distorted slogans and recognizable themes worm their way into the mix. "I'm Loving It", we hear at one point, the Sony PlayStation startup music at another. And then there's a ten-second clip of what sounds like someone getting killed in a horror movie. What is there to make of the coexistence of those sorts of samples? Probably nothing explicit, just the uneasiness of benign and instantly-recognizable brand content in the midst of harsh, difficult art. Perhaps quality must to some extent be tied to sponsorship. That Antwood can make this point amidst blasts and washes of experimental electronic mayhem is quite the achievement. - Mike Schiller

18. Bonobo - Migration (Ninja Tune)

Although Bonobo, a.k.a. Simon Green, has been vocal in the past about not making personality driven music, Migration is, in many respects, a classic sounding Bonobo record. Green continues to build sonic collages out of chirping synths, jazz-influenced drums, sweeping strings and light touches of piano but on Migration sounds more confident than ever. He has an ability to tap into the emotions like few others such as on the gorgeous "Break Apart" and the more percussive "Surface". However, Bonobo also works to broaden his sound. The electro-classical instrumental "Second Sun" floats along wistfully, sounding like it could have fit snugly onto a Erased Tapes compilation, while the precise and intricate "Grains" shows the more intimate and reflective side of his work. On the flipside, the higher tempo, beat driven tracks such as "Outlier" and "Kerala" perfectly exhibit his understanding of what works on the dance floor while on "Bambro Koyo Ganda" he even weaves North African rhythms into the fabric. Migration is a multifaceted album full of personality and all the better for it. - Paul Carr

17. Kiasmos - Blurred EP (Erased Tapes)

The Icelandic duo of Olafur Arnalds and Janus Rasmussen, aka Kiasmos, is a perfect example of a pair of artists coming from two very different musical backgrounds, finding an unmistakable common ground to create something genuinely distinctive. Arnalds, more known for his minimal piano and string work, and Rasmussen, approaching from a more electropop direction, have successfully explored the middle ground between their different musical approaches and in doing so crafted affecting minimalist electronic music. Blurred is one of the most emotionally engaging electronic releases of the year. The duo is working from a refined and bright sonic palette as they consummately layer fine, measured sounds together. It is an intricate yet unforced and natural sounding set of songs with every song allowed room to bloom gradually. - Paul Carr

16. Ellen Allien - Nost (BPitch Control)

BPitch boss and longtime lynchpin of the DJ scene in Berlin, Ellen Allien's seven full-length releases show an artist constantly reinventing herself. Case in point, her 2013 offering, LISm, was a largely beat-less ambient work designed to accompany an artsy dance piece, while its follow-up, 2017's Nost, is a hardcore techno journey, spiritually born in the nightclubs and warehouses of the early '90s. It boasts nine straight techno bangers, beautifully minimalist arrangements with haunting vocals snippets and ever propulsive beats, all of which harken back to a hallowed, golden, mostly-imagined age when electronic music was still very much underground, and seemingly anything was possible. - Alan Ranta

It's just past noon on a Tuesday, somewhere in Massachusetts and Eric Earley sounds tired.

Since 2003, Earley's band, Blitzen Trapper, have combined folk, rock and whatever else is lying around to create music that manages to be both enigmatic and accessible. Since their breakthrough album Furr released in 2008 on Sub Pop, the band has achieved critical acclaim and moderate success, but they're still some distance away from enjoying the champagne lifestyle.

Keep reading... Show less

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.