Jeff Mangum wrote just a few handfuls of songs, and with those and the help of a couple of friends he released two of the best albums in the entire history of music: Neutral Milk Hotel‘s “On Avery Island” and “In The Aeroplane Over The Sea” – then he disappeared. This was in 1999, and between then and now, as both albums gradually started enchanting me, Mangum grew to become one of the few absolute heroes I still have left. I never expected to see him perform ever in my life – when he resurfaced, I thought his public appearances would remain limited to a few little venues in the American hinterland, after which he would draw back into hibernation. But then Neutral Milk Hotel reformed for an American tour, and after that, against my wildest expectations, extended this tour to Europe. So I went to see them in Paris, and it was quite possibly the most amazing show I ever attended.
The show captured a lot of the eerie and uncomfortable beauty of Jeff Mangum’s songs, especially the ones he sang just by his lonely self in a bright shaft of light – opener “Two-Headed Boy” and almost-closer “Two-Headed Boy Pt. 2” were almost unparalleled in their sheer distressing grace. But it wasn’t just a homecoming of the much-beloved “In The Aeroplane Over The Sea” – most of that album was featured, sure, but I was thrilled that almost half of “On Avery Island” was played as well. While “Naomi” might not have been the crowd’s favorite, it’s one of my favorite songs in the world, and to hear Jeff Mangum and his band perform it live felt like a rite of passage.
Then there’s the other side of Neutral Milk Hotel: they can just as easily morph into an aggressively loud band that, rather than analyze, you have to feel like a blow to your stomach. “The King of Carrot Flowers“‘s steady progression from some kind of neurotic bluegrass song into a drunken Carnivàle, then suddenly thundering into a devastating wall of mayhem was like an explosion on the theatre floor: the devoted crowd went A.P.E.S.H.I.T., unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. “Ghost” is breathtakingly beautiful, setting half the audience gaping in awe (or singing loudly along, or even crying – or both). But it’s also ferociously driven by distorted drones and a thudding 4/4 rhythm, setting the other half ablaze. “Holland 1945” takes some very bleak World War II imagery to build a song upon that had people crowd surfing. Were it not for Mangum’s wail, all those cheery trumpets would’ve almost made it sound joyful.
Although he looked very pleased and appreciative, I don’t know if Jeff Mangum really enjoys performing those obsessive and unsettling songs – I don’t even know to what length these songs have any auto-biographic foundation to them. Maybe they don’t, and maybe I’m putting too much significance on them. Then again, I realize I may not fully understand Jeff Mangum’s twisted mind – the songs have been described as “the cracked logic of a dream“, and that’s exactly the way they resonate with me. But in spite of all misinterpretation, intentional or not, this music touches me deeply, and it’s been so, so very rewarding to have witnessed this.