Thirteen years ago, Jeff Mangum and his band, Neutral Milk Hotel, released In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, quietly one of the most powerful albums of the last 20 years.
A year later, he walked away from the music business and disappeared.
In the 12 years since Neutral Milk Hotel went on hiatus, he has rarely done interviews. In one revealing interview, he alluded to a nervous breakdown and talked about how emotionally draining his music could be.
All this time, though, fans -- myself included -- have waited and waited and waited to just hear some damn music. Not because we feel we're owed, but because few musicians have been able to tap into a subconscious mess of pain and hurt and dream images that we never knew we had as Neutral Milk Hotel. They created a ridiculous kaleidoscope of Holocaust fever dreams and morning shakes and fragile teenage beauty, all of it driven by Mangum's manic, imperfect genius.
Years later, after a few sporadic shows, Jeff Mangum decided he's going to start playing again. So on October 3, 2011, as the capper of 2011's All Tomorrow's Parties festival, he played in Asbury Park. I was there. And it went like this:
Mangum walks out onto stage looking not so much an indie icon making a triumphant return to stage as he does a Depression-era street urchin swaggering his way to the front of the bread line. He’s tall and lanky, or at least appears that way thanks to ill-fitting clothes and a flop of hair kept out of his face only by a tiny brown cabbie hat.
The stage is unadorned save for a semi-circle of acoustic guitars.
The audience at Asbury's paramount theater, an aged, intimate venue that feels somehow appropriate thanks to its rustic, yesteryear flavor, goes so wild you can barely hear his humble thanks.
Then he starts playing.
You'd not think he would still be in touch with this music after so many years, but he is. Tales of Siamese twins and child abuse and lost loves, howled onto the stage over manically strummed guitar. His voice maybe doesn't have the reach it did before. Not that he was ever an extraordinary vocal talent, but at his best he bled passion in a way even the most well-trained singers rarely can. Now, he struggled here and there to reach the painful heights of his records -- yet still he laid bare on the stage. You feel like he is still connected to his cast of nightmare characters, and in turn, so are we.
At one point he asks the audience to sing along, then immediately launches into "The King of Carrot Flowers pt. 1," which confronts the confusion of adolescence, a fractured family led by a father who wants to die, and Mangum's usual dream-like imagery. The audience sings, bashful at first, but quickly emboldened by Mangum's encouragement they're soon letting loose. Yet it's not an arena rock moment. It's somehow personal. He's touched these people, allowing them a little piece of himself, and now you get the sense they're offering the same in return.
You don't get moving moments like these at rock shows.
He also, for the first time in some 13 years and only the second time ever, plays his darkest ever song. A song that almost hurts. A song so grim and surreal that even at the time it made clear that he'd spiraled over some edge and was channeling something maybe even he didn't understand. As of this writing, it has never been released. This is what that very first performance more than a decade ago looked like:
These days the (slightly changed) song is still dark and beautiful, but it no longer feels like he is falling apart on stage. (You can watch the Asbury performance here.) The audience thanks him for sharing it with us, just one of the many intimate back-and-forths between he and us, us and he.
After a set containing just about every track from the cult landmark In The Aeroplane Over The Sea and fully half his first album, On Avery Island (not to mention the aforementioned "Little Birds" and Mangum favorite "Engine"), he leaves. Audience demands his return. He complies. Comes back for "Two-Headed Boy." Near the end of the song, the opening act, A Hawk and a Hacksaw, stroll onto the stage. The audience is going mad. They know what is going to happen. And as "Two-Headed Boy" ends, they, Mangum and a full band of oddball horns and percussion and accordions, roll into "The Fool."
It's a beautiful, unexpected moment. And if we cheered until long after the house lights came on, well, who could blame us?
You can download and listen to the entire show at this link. Enjoy.
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