How strange it is to be able to see Jeff Mangum twice in less than four months, that enigmatic leader of Neutral Milk Hotel, who has basically disappeared from the music scene for the past 10 years and is suddenly back, doing concerts. And he’s selling out every single one, some within seconds, because there is something about those two full-length albums that the band released, Aeroplane Over the Sea (1998) and On Avery Island (1996), that is haunting.
That might not be the right word for it, because although you are followed by the unsettling words and Mangum’s uniquely wailing voice long after, the act of listening also never gets old, never stops being almost more than you can take. Even with repetitive listening, I don’t feel like I’ve fully wrapped my mind around those two very strange, very beautiful albums. In fact, I realized during the concert when he played a song I didn’t know, that I’d never bothered to seek out Neutral Milk Hotel songs apart from those two albums. Because I never needed to. Unlike a lot of my favorite bands that I feel like I constantly need to fuel my passion with more songs and obscure live cuts, I’ve never felt like I needed to find more than theose two gripping albums.
Of course, it is just that sort of putting-on-a-pedestal thought that makes it so strange to see Jeff Mangum in the flesh. I think we all sort of assumed he would never come back, that he’d just be spotted fleetingly in Brooklyn and Athens, Georgia (home of the Elephant 6 collective that includes Neutral Milk Hotel along with Of Montreal, Elf Power, Apples in Stereo, etc.). I’m sure that’s also why he’s hesitated to come back; it must be terrifying to be adored so intensely. And the first time we saw him, at Town Hall back in October, it was like a specter appeared on the stage and I almost couldn’t breathe the whole show. (You can read about that snowy night here, actually, there was snow for the first time since then on the day of this BAM show…)
He was playing a three-night concert series at BAM in Brooklyn, and thanks to the fantastic ticket work of Ilana, our group of three ended up with seats for the final night. However, we didn’t realize until we got there that the double letters on our tickets did not in fact mean the back row, but the very front! We were in the second row from the stage.
The openers were the charming and wonderful Music Tapes, a project of Julian Koster, a former Neutral Milk Hotel member (you can hear him playing bass, banjo, and the saw on Aeroplane Over the Sea). Oh, and he was joined by bandmates on brass and keyboards, as well as a few automatons, including some sort of organ playing tower, a singing television, and a 7-foot tall metronome. It was fantastic.
Then came the building tension until Mangum appeared on stage, wearing the same green button up and pageboy hat as when we’d seen him at Town Hall. His set list was quite similar, but what a difference being so close to the stage makes! The rest of the audience was drowned out by the speakers and it was more like we were witnessing an extraordinarly talented, but very strange, man perform these songs that all call to some disturbed part of our brains. It was totally different from the hushed reverence of the Town Hall show. Of course, the Gilman Opera House at BAM has two balconies, and I imagine looking down from there would be a different experience. However, it wouldn’t have mattered where you were sitting for the power of the songs. And I realized that these songs are meant to be heard live. Even with fewer of the charging instruments than are on the albums, the music felt fuller, and there was excitement to hearing each note. Even the songs we all have tattooed on our minds felt surprisinging through Mangum’s full committment to the music through his voice. Mangum played acoustic guitar for the entire set, although he was joined by the Music Tapes on a few songs, the best being the finale of “The Fool.” Almost a Neutral Milk Hotel reunion!
For the encore, he asked that the audience come closer to the stage, and I somehow found myself right at the front. It ended with the Music Tapes joining him for “Aeroplane Over the Sea,” and the whole opera house sang along. The crowd around me swayed. I don’t think I’ve really felt the lyrics in that way before: “Can’t believe how strange it is to be anything at all.”
Here’s the full set list:
Two-Headed Boy, Part Two
Gardenhead / Leave Me Alone
Song Against Sex
In the Aeroplane Over the Sea
There is a video of the encore that someone took. I feel a little weird posting it… perhaps you’ll know why.