“How strange it is to be anything at all,” Jeff Mangum mused on the closing line of In the Aeroplane Over the Sea’s title track. The music Mangum made as the bona fide mastermind behind Neutral Milk Hotel—On Avery Island, and more notably, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea—doesn't have the ubiquitous critical acclaim of other 90s albums like My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless or The Flaming Lips’ The Soft Bulletin. But a record like In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is nothing but guts, and that’s what separates it from anything else that has ever been recorded in the indie music world. Mangum made it okay to broach hefty issues in a determinedly personal way. That’s probably why his music feels as life-affirming as it does—he stares in the face of all the disgusting shit humans do to each other and explodes it in music that is so weird and beautiful and so very much ours.
When it was released in early 1998, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea—which balanced brass fanfares and Eastern European choruses with freewheeling, imagistic lyrics—was quickly touted as a work that changed the face of independent music with its emotional frankness and smorgasbord of influences. This album cast indie music before Mangum as obtuse, evasive, and even reticent while kicking Mangum and bald emotion out onto center stage.
And yet, amid the success of Aeroplane, it seemed that Mangum always had one foot out the door, waiting for the second he could drop his guitar and duck out of the spotlight. The onslaught of concentrated fame and increasing critical acclaim that ghosted the album begat a bevy of frenzied fans and attention that took its toll on Mangum, who then disbanded Neutral Milk Hotel after touring the album in 1999. He made no announcement, just a demure departure.
Those close to Mangum supposed he had grown tired of glossy magazines poking and prodding him to explain his creative process and lyrics. Rumors circulated about Mangum’s nervous breakdown and persistent, almost debilitating night terrors. Fans and critics alike rallied for a new Mangum-orchestrated Neutral Milk Hotel album and accused him of selfishness and wasting his talent when he didn’t step forward for over a decade.
So it came as a surprise to everyone when, on February 11th of this year, Mangum announced a solo tour during the summer and fall of 2011. A lucky encounter with a future suitemate and $40 (and a IOU beer) later, I had finally landed myself a ticket to see Mangum at Harvard Square’s Sanders Theater on September 9th. Curiosity—and of course, the excitement of actually seeing indie music’s very own Salinger in the flesh—had me hooked from the get-go.
After a half hour of wandering gazes, foot shuffling and nervous coughing, the audience welcomed a timid Mangum to the stage with a clattery applause of hoots and whistles. Mangum sheepishly shielded his eyes from the spotlight for a moment, then plucked a guitar from the four that were set up around a single chair. He sat and looked up into the audience and smiled dimly, waiting for a lull in applause. Everyone seemed to settle for a moment. Then Mangum cocked his head and strummed the first few chords of “Oh, Comely,” and that was it—everyone fell back into their own blissful fits. Shouts of recognition, of approval, of a real need to hear these songs drowned out the first 30 seconds of the song. I had heard applause before, but nothing like this. This had an eerie, almost cultish fervor, like it belonged at some kind of explosive metal concert. But there Mangum sat, strumming and singing along all the same.
It’s a well-catalogued fact that NMH fans are—to phrase it delicately—passionate. Aeroplane became an instant classic in small indie circles, so the people who could get their hands on an album spun it on their record players for hours on end memorizing the songs, then rushed to shows drunk with Mangum fever. The countless other NMH concertgoers who came to actually listen to Mangum, however, complained about fans collectively drowning out his music the entire show with their own gasps and shouts while Mangum persistently strums from up on high. And it came as no exception that night: as Mangum segued from “Oh, Comely” into “Two-Headed Boy, Part 2” and on through “Naomi” and “Holland, 1945,” each person in the crowd grabbed the songs by their lapels and made them their own, practically rendering Mangum’s songs into little more than echoes.
And oddly enough, Mangum—the soft-spoken, self-effacing Mangum—encouraged it. “Sing along, now!” he called, and the audience took charge and led Mangum in a sing-a-long to his own songs. Several times throughout the show, I peeked at the businessman sitting next to me and was surprised to see that he mouthed the lyrics to each and every song. Tilting my head to the right, I was equally surprised to see a couple wearing matching Joy Division shirts clutching each other’s hands and singing with Mangum, never missing a beat. And from the looks of it, the rest of the theater was following suit.
This outpouring of devotion, this profound adulation of Mangum, was strange for me. Here I was, sandwiched between an investment banker and two bougie hip-kids, singing with Mangum about “taking off my clothes” and watching as “they’ll be placing fingers through the notches” in my spine. It was all so public. Of course I know that NMH’s music is an incredibly important part of indie music history and loads of people have listened to and adore it, but there’s something funny about its notoriety. Because, despite its importance and acclaim, that music is still irrevocably intimate.
When I listened to Mangum that night, he lilted about all the cards I hold close to my chest, the things we all seem to conveniently skirt to save face: the sticky awkwardness of sex, the fleshy wounds and pulp of a two-headed boy stuffed in a jar during some cruel industrial-era experiment, the gruesome and arbitrary violence committed against Anne Frank. So much of the appeal of Mangum’s music is the core of that initial connection—who were you, what mattered to you when you first listened to this album? And the thing is, that kind of question is always, always relevant. And that night, Mangum doggedly insisted on vivifying the experience we each had with that album. That’s why I was sitting next to a middle-aged stockbroker and self-conscious 20-something hipsters in the same room; hell, in the same row. Mangum wants us to confront our own selves with his music, and that night, he gave himself up to the audience—sacrificing, in a way, his own voice to the status of an afterthought as the people who waited so, so long to sing those songs again shouted, shrieked and sang in that hour and a half of music he gave us.
In one of the very few interviews Mangum did consent to—with Pitchfork in 2002—he explained his post-Aeroplane meltdown. He recounted that the songs on Aeroplane represented his own convictions about human nature and that, in the time following Aeroplane, he scrutinized these beliefs to the point that he eroded them completely. It took him years to recover from this crisis, and part of this recovery was recognizing that making music simply didn’t make him happy in the way it used to, nor could it ever save him from his own, much less other peoples’, demons. He lost quite a bit of faith in what music could do.
But as I listened to “Holland, 1945” that evening, I got the idea that’s precisely the reason he’s come back. But now we must pick up every piece… Of the life we used to love… Just enough to keep ourselves… At least enough to carry on. I think coming back was Mangum’s way of picking up his pieces, of rising above everything that had whittled him down. He doesn’t need more money, more fame, more whatever. He came to see all of us, teary-eyed and grateful for the people we became when we first popped Aeroplane or On Avery Island into a tape deck, CD player or computer. I don’t expect a new Neutral Milk Hotel album, and frankly, nor do I really want one. Mangum’s unassuming gift to me was the sing-a-long of a lifetime in a wooden cathedral. And that’s more than enough for me.
EMMA JANASKIE B’13 is the communist daughter.