February 19, 2013
A REVIEW BY
In 1998, Jeff Mangum and his band Neutral Milk Hotel released In The Aeroplane Over The Sea. The album, a follow-up to the moderately successful On Avery Island, gained some modest popularity, and Neutral Milk Hotel went on a national tour.
Then the band broke up.
Save for the release of some old live recordings, playing with friends’ bands, and the once-in-a-blue-moon live performance, Mangum disappeared from the music scene altogether. But last year, he decided to go on “one last u.s. acoustic tour to play to all the silver citizens dwelling in citys that he has yet to sing in.”
What happened in the years between Aeroplane and his recent tour is fascinating: The cult of personality surrounding Jeff Mangum exploded, aided by time and the dawn of the Internet age. In the early 2000s, bootlegs of his performances were selling for hundreds of dollars on eBay. After he released Live at Jittery Joe’s to combat the bootlegs (and after physical bootleg recordings became obsolete), the Internet solidified Mangum’s popularity and mystique. On music forums, speculation abounded about Mangum’s ability to time travel; as music became more accessible in general, a new generation connected with the artist through the sheer force of his talent. Aeroplane was transformed from a relative success to one of the greatest albums of all time, as a result of both Mangum’s disappearance and the way the cultural forces of our time dealt with his absence.
And so, as I walked up to Hartford’s Great Hall at Union Station on February 19, I encountered a line wrapped around the block full of tweens, teens, and 20-somethings bursting with eager energy (tempered, of course, by their hipster predilections) to see Jeff Mangum after 15 years of silence.
The hall itself was a train station poorly masquerading as a performance space, with giant sheets thrown up to cover the escalators and side offices. To the side of the room there was the merch table, which was covered, as merch tables always are, with overpriced t-shirts, stickers, and the newly released NMH box set (only $88!). It’s hard not to be suspicious of Mangum’s motives here: He’s been off the radar for over a decade. Setting aside the fantastical nature of his tour announcement, the first conclusion I jump to is that he simply ran out of money and needs to get while the getting’s good. I briefly consider buying a shirt.
The Music Tapes, the band of former NMH member Julian Koster, opened the show. Koster is best known for his mastery of the singing saw, an instrument that consists of a saw and a violin bow. Its distinctive sound can be heard on Aeroplane and is featured on the title track of that album. As is often the case with oddities, the sound of the singing saw can quickly become annoying. The Music Tapes is also such an oddity. Koster told interminable and cloying stories that straddled the line between twee and insanity. (At one point, the band brought out a seven-foot tall metronome that allegedly had the ability to change the pace of time; it certainly felt like the act had gone on forever.) Interestingly enough, The Music Tapes sound like generic, mid-2000s indie-pop, replete with overblown reverb-y guitars and bells. Their strangeness promises much but fails to deliver, diminishing the experience of the act itself and turning it into empty parody.
Finally, after all that nonsense, Jeff Mangum walked onto the stage, his only accoutrements his guitars, a chair, and an extraordinary beard. This pared-down aesthetic, in stark contrast to The Music Tapes’, also demonstrated itself in the way he introduced songs: Before “A Baby For Pree Glow Into You,” he said, “This song was for Pree, who was, uh… pregnant.” Further, this was an acoustic tour—onstage it was just Mangum and his guitar. That didn’t mean, however, that he was singing alone.
On almost every song, Mangum was accompanied by every soul in the audience. Hearing the way in which the sounds of a man with a guitar were transformed into a booming chorus, it became clear to me that Mangum’s words and music had long since transcended the man himself. And though his artistic intentions can be esoteric—Aeroplane focuses on Mangum’s obsession with and love for Anne Frank—his work resonates enormously with our generation in a very primordial way. This uncanny ability to connect with his audience through his music is what has led people to believe in ridiculous stories about time travel and marrying Anne Frank—Mangum makes us believe that anything is possible. Any worries I had about Mangum’s intentions disappeared, for even if they were impure, we had all paid a fair price for our redemption.
He opened up with “Two-Headed Boy, Pt. One,” segueing seamlessly into the song’s second part, though it appears seven tracks later on Aeroplane. Mangum is a deft arranger, and his reworking of the vocal melodies for the acoustic setting was impressive. But, though he invited the audience to join him in imitating the horns in “Holland, 1945” and “Ghost,” the lo-fi, raucous nature of the album was lost in his solo performance. Songs like “Oh Comely” and both parts of “Two-Headed Boy” benefit from their spare arrangements, but their elegance is amplified when contrasted with the punk-inspired crunch associated with Neutral Milk Hotel. I’d love to hear Mangum perform these songs with a full band again.
As the night drew to a close, Mangum took the stage for an encore with his former band member, Koster, for two more songs: “Engine,” a lesser-known B-side, and “In The Aeroplane Over the Sea.” Koster is truly virtuosic on the singing saw; the reverberation of his solos filled the solemn spaces that Mangum’s music opened for his listeners nearly 15 years ago. As I left the concert hall, I knew I would be exploring those spaces for years to come, searching in vain for the last echoes of Mangum and Koster—all of us—in harmony.