When I first heard Neutral Milk Hotel it was 2000 and my daughter brought the CD of In the Aeroplane Over the Sea home from college. By then, the album had been out for about two years and its composer/singer Jeff Mangum was already passing into legend as a young, quirky genius who had produced a distinctly offbeat, ‘alternative’ masterpiece and then dropped out of the music biz, more or less. There were tales of him spending his days making field recordings of Bulgarian music. What, the rumors strongly suggested, do you do after In the Aeroplane Over the Sea? So, when I heard that Mangum was back in public, that he’d performed as part of All Tomorrow’s Parties, and in Zuccoti Park for OWS, and then announced a mini-tour that would commence at the Shubert in New Haven, January 18, 2012, there was no way I was going to miss it. And it seemed that everyone who attended had the same feeling I did: this dude is just too original to miss. What’s more, I had the impression that the nearly sold-out venue was filled with other listeners who had, for one reason or another, pretty much committed every note of that album, and maybe more or less all of its predecessor—1996’s On Avery Island—to memory. We weren’t just fans or consumers. We were a kind of faithful who believed in what Mangum had given us—a gift that, like the best gifts, you didn’t know you needed till someone gave it to you.
What he gave us on Wednesday night was an almost solo walk-through of most of his recorded output (he was accompanied on musical saw on a few tunes, and the final song of the show proper was the unnamed instrumental that follows “Ghost,” in which he was abetted by The Music Tapes, the Athens band that opened the show with a set featuring a seven-foot metronome, “Static, the Magical TV,” stories of Roumanian circus acts, and a banjo played with a violin bow). Of course, a cruise through the best of the recorded work is pretty much what anyone expects when going to see a concert, and most artists with a small output tend to play everything they’ve got. But in Mangum’s case the songs, on the records, are enhanced by flugelhorns and percussion and instrumentation somewhat unusual for a “rock album.” Solo, on a simple chair surrounded by four guitars, with two bottles of water and a music stand, it was all a matter of voice and guitar. What was so stunningly impressive is that the songs never needed more than that.
The songs, on record, also have an elusive, DIY quality that makes them oddly compelling, delivered in a strident voice that seems always close to dissolution in shrieks, or ever-ready to go off in almost manic ‘dee-dee-dees’ that make Mangum sound like some kind of musical idiot savant. On Wednesday, Mangum played through it all as though it cost him no great effort, as if, indeed, he is a professional singer-songwriter, with a distinctive musical style and impressive vocal control, when one had perhaps conceived of him as something both more and less: some rare and fabled beast from the Id, wailing songs thick with odd changes, with lyrics bristling with strangely neurotic images of the family romance, of a two-headed boy, a piano full of flames, of falls from fourteen-story buildings, of things to do “when you realize you’re dead,” of semen-coated mountain tops, and ghosts, and brains falling out through teeth. Wednesday Mangum even offered a song he introduced as one he “rarely plays”: called “Little Birds,” it had, like most Mangum songs, gently devastating lyrics that also sound a bit like demented nursery rhymes.
What are his songs about? I have no idea. And I also find it hard to say what the overwhelming emotion is while listening to this music. My daughter told me of a friend who put Aeroplane on while making dinner and felt like he should start crying by the time it was done. The album is plaintive, hallucinogenic, nakedly alive, at times uncomfortably so—as in the acapella drone of “I love you, Jesus Christ / Jesus Christ, I love you” in “The King of Carrot Flowers, 2”—but also thrilling, which makes it rather memorably uplifting. And that was the main feeling I got from every song Wednesday night: joy.
At one point, Mangum, who fielded the shouted song requests—the best was, “play a song of your own choosing”—and the shouts of adoration with a benign, amused cool, asked “Is everyone happy?” Yes, happy to see and hear him do those songs, regardless of whether or not the music is “happy.” Then again, I can never hear these lines from “In the Aeroplane over the Sea” (the encore and last song of the night), “And one day we will die / and our ashes will fly / from the aeroplane over the sea / but for now we are young / let us lay in the sun / and count every beautiful thing we can see,” without feeling elated. It’s not the words themselves so much, but rather the way they ride the emotion of Mangum’s voice, which seems to arrive at the benediction with a slap of being—sort of like the slap on a newborn’s butt to make it cry, or sing.