Neutral Milk Hotel

Neutral Milk Hotel reunited Friday in Baltimore and again Saturday in Richmond, the seminal psych-folk outfit’s first performances together in nearly 15 years. Everybody reunites these days, even the most hermetic of reluctant heroes, and Jeff Mangum has been making cautious strides toward the public eye since before #OccupyWallStreet was a cause célèbre. But this tour still seemed unlikely, even after Mangum embarked on a solo tour over this past year. What appeared like it could be a last hurrah turned out to be a scouting mission. Maybe, if he kept it to an intimate scale of his liking and subverted the music industry bullshit that drove him away in the first place, Mangum could handle all this adulation after all. A generation of young Neutral Milk Hotel zealots would get to see their messiah’s second coming not just as a roving hobo but as a conquering hobo-king accompanied by a slovenly host in all its splendor.

By all accounts last weekend’s shows were tingling, trembling dreams come true for legions of fans who came of age after Jeff Mangum’s self-imposed exile in the aftermath of 1998′s sacred text In The Aeroplane Over The Sea and thus assumed they’d never flail and holler through an ecstatic, full-bodied rendition of “Holland, 1945″ in this life. Says one Stereogum commenter of the Baltimore show: “I don’t need to go to any more live shows. I can be done now.” Says another of Saturday’s Richmond gig: “It’s not that my greatest hopes were validated; it’s not that the years of passionate, obnoxious love for the band found an outlet in ecstatic dancing and screaming; it’s not that it was everything I’d hoped it would be. It was something else entirely… I went to the best show of my life.”

The band will be doing this all over the world for the better part of a year (“On empty rings around the sun/ All sing to say my dream has come…”) but barring some unexpected development, I’m not going to make it to one of these reunion shows (“…On empty rings around your heart/ The world just screams and falls apart”). Neutral Milk Hotel is not stopping in my state, and I’m unable to make the trek to northern Kentucky tonight for the tour’s closest thing to an Ohio date. The thought of being there for one of these concerts is incredibly appealing, and I’d certainly leap at the chance; even as someone who considers NMH’s 1996 debut On Avery Island less than essential, I worship Aeroplane like every other indie rock dork. Yet I can’t say I’m crushed about missing out. See, I basked in spi-rils of white at one of Mangum’s solo shows earlier this year and left emanating rays of light myself. For all my imagined thrills of witnessing the full unit in action — Julian Koster juggling accordion, banjo, and singing saw like it was nothing, Scott Spillane’s French horn blasts accenting Mangum’s nasal caterwaul, a wave of wanton fuzz-crunch rising up to carry the rousing choruses home — I felt like I experienced similar fireworks just by bearing witness to the man and his guitar.

That’s not my standard position. Typically, I think of the guy-and-guitar archetype as a tired, tapped-out form and a great way to suck the life out of a carefully arranged composition. I appreciate the glory of a full-fledged production, of assembling not just a haunting skeleton but a fierce beast. It’s not that I want all musicians to pile on the overdubs a la M83′s Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming — there’s just as much power in the subtle minimalism of Spoon’s Kill The Moonlight – it’s that I prefer when music has the potential to go many directions and take on many shades. Songs built for the solo acoustic format are working with an extremely limited palette from the start and seem especially likely to stumble into cliche; remember that guy from your college dorm? And when musicians scrape away the layers of a pre-existing arrangement it often robs a song of its power rather than honing in on it.

It doesn’t have to be this way, but dynamics, textures, and other musical details tend to go out the window when you strip a song down to its barest essentials. The process can knock classic tracks down to merely OK and render mediocre songs unlistenable. Some folks say this is how you test music’s fortitude, that all the best songs can be reduced to a voice and an acoustic guitar. That’s obviously bullshit truism designed to lend credence to rockist caricatures like the itinerant bluesman (give me this “Crossroads” over this “Crossroads” any day) and the folk singer with a heart of gold. Just look at some of the best music Stereogum has posted today: neither James Blake and Chance The Rapper’s graceful synthetic sigh or Metallica’s technical marvels or even Destruction Unit’s elemental roar can successfully be reduced to the guy-and-guitar format, but that doesn’t mean they’re inferior to (with all apologies to Connie Britton and Hayden Panettiere) whatever singer-songwriter treacle is leaking out of Nashville’s Bluebird Cafe these days.

So if the full-band experience is superior to solo acoustic, why am I so content with seeing Mangum solo? Because although the guy-and-guitar archetype is not so useful for separating wheat from chaff where songwriters are concerned, it’s exceptionally handy for identifying the truly magnetic performers. And although Neutral Milk Hotel boasts stupendous songwriting and magnificent arrangements, its music lives and dies on the power of Mangum’s harrowing howl. Maybe it’s a fool’s errand to separate the man from his songs; after all, the effortless unshakeable melodies and gut-wrenching surrealist storying are essential components of Neutral Milk Hotel’s mystique. But nobody is going to gather around to hear me sing “Two-Headed Boy” no matter how furiously I strum. (Open mic night emcees worldwide are nodding vigorously.)

As Amrit explained after seeing a Mangum solo gig at ATP two years ago, “His being alone up there, of course, was perfectly fine: These songs are stark and majestic and essentially ride on this one man’s presence and voice, a reedy and sonorous thing of sterling beauty that hasn’t rusted an inch in all of these years. It substituted well for those moments that we’re used to hearing horns, and also for those moments we’re used to getting goosebumps.” I scrawled similar sentiments after witnessing Mangum huddle the audience around him house-show style at a century-old theater in Columbus last winter, when he slowly but surely chipped away my jaded guy-and-guitar fatigue and sent me soaring into fanboy euphoria: “His voice is among the most powerful and distinct instruments I’ve encountered, lending almost supernatural weight to the surreal imagery that once spilled freely from his imagination. Frankly, I would have showed up just to hear him babbling nonsense syllables.”

Some performers have that kind of electricity inside them, liable to be set loose at any time. On these same folksy fringes of indie rock, John Darnielle and Neko Case come to mind, though Nick Drake’s somber whispers and James Brown’s sexualized huff are just as resonant. It has to do with their voices, sure, and it helps when they’re performing well-crafted material, but neither factor fully explains the intangible ability to conjure the pain and elation of trying to make a go of it on this planet. This kind of performer can thrive, as many of them do, in the midst of a clamorous production. But they’re just as likely to paralyze you in awestruck wonder when the pageantry evaporates and all that remains is a living, breathing force of nature.

That’s the type of performer Mangum is. It’s probably why half the best Neutral Milk Hotel songs were presented as only him and a guitar in the first place, because everyone else recognized what they were dealing with and didn’t want to get in the way. And while I’ll never buy the argument that a song like “Two-Headed Boy Pt. Two” is an inherently superior composition because it works in the solo acoustic format, Mangum is an inherently superior performer for his ability to elevate such simple rituals into a religious experience. Whether that’s experienced in the midst of an expertly honed ruckus or distilled to its purest form, it’s a privilege to behold.

Comments (16)
  1. I saw his solo show when he came through LA. While I agree that he and his guitar were magical on their own, I did find myself missing some of those killer drum fills.

  2. This is pretty similar to what my friend and I were talking about in a beer-filled, late-night discussion. When you’re writing music it’s pretty important to have a balance between songs that can be stripped down, and ones that need to have a full band playing. Listeners are gonna get pretty bored after a while if they continuously hear songs that can easily be stripped down. At the same time, however, the listeners are gonna be uninterested hearing only songs that cant be stripped down to a single person and an acoustic guitar.

    For example… One of the things that made Bon Iver’s self titled album so great was that, compared to For Emma, almost none of those songs could be stripped down to an acoustic, which really helped balance out the two albums. I think that really helped make those albums so frequently listenable for me. Sufjan Stevens is a MASTER of this.

    But like what you said, Chris. There are occasionally artists that defy this “rule”. Jeff Mangum, Elliott Smith, Conor Oberst, etc. These artists display so much emotion and passion into their music that you forget about that “rule” while listening to them. Their sheer presence in person and on record resonates to you and takes you over.

    Artists on this level will continue to be listened to long after their career is over. They’re such a special gift to the music world, and art world in general, and we should and hopefully will continue to cherish them for years to come.

  3. I agree with a lot of this. The songs really did work with just Jeff performing them alone, and it is because of who he is as a performer. But for me part of what makes NMH possibly my favorite band of all time is that every element of their music works so well together. Everything from the way the band dresses, to the legend of their long hiatus, to the fact that they’re part of the Elephant 6 community, to the album art, to the singing saw and the accordion and the horns… It all just works. It’s almost world building, in the sense that I feel like NMH is actually a place I’ve been. I don’t know if that makes any sense, but there is something about seeing the whole band that felt more like visiting that place.

  4. You don’t have to justify not seeing a show by saying it’s in Kentucky, especially when the Madison Theater is all of 30 seconds away from Ohio.

  5. Dude is bummed he’s missing NMH. Dude also REALLY hates the college guy showing off his acoustic guitar on the quad. Dude tries to tell himself that seeing Jeff Mangum’s solo acoustic was good enough, but wait, dude really hates solo acoustic guy on the quad. Dude therefore writes a thoughtful think piece that brings his cognitive dissonance to cognitive harmony.

    I enjoyed this read dude.

    • Thanks, dude.

      • Also, that is a pretty good summary of my thought process. I also just really, really don’t believe that the best songs can all be boiled down to acoustic guitar, and this seemed like as good a time as any to voice that opinion.

        • I used to subscribe to the school of thought that the best songs can be boiled down to acoustic guitar, and the whole world opened up to me when I realized it was bullshit. I’m still a huge sucker for the singer-songwriter thing, while hating a grand majority of all of it for reasons you clearly understand. So I related to this a lot.

  6. well i don’t know. if the songwriting is good, then yeah you can probably reduce it to one guy and a guitar. its not that it will be a better song that way, but it does tend to expose bad or lazy songwriting.

  7. I couldn’t disagree more with Chris DeVille’s arguments here.

    Mangum’s songs are simple arrangements across the board and don’t really pass the “guy-and-guitar” test. He often never leaves the C or G Major key signature and his strumming is anything but brilliant. In fact, one might argue his guitar-playing is amateurish. Most Mangum fans, myself included, find his frenetic strumming endearing and charming. But without that baby crying in the background at Jittery Joe’s, and after the $40 dollar ticket charge, and when you’re sitting 30 rows back, Mangum’s weak skills are actually not that cute at all.

    The x-factor in Mangum’s solo performance is his voice. It’s transcendent and categorically unique. Still, the studio-to-acoustic transposing of his songs only works well on a song-to-song basis. “Two Headed Boy Parts I & II,” “Oh, Comely,” “Communist Daughter,” and “Engine” all work fine without any accompaniment, but his voice alone can’t elevate certain songs to their studio magnificence. “Ghost” is kind of a letdown without any brass. And let’s not even talk about “Song Against Sex” or “Holland 1945,” two of Mangum’s best upbeat songs, without drums.

    As somebody who saw Mangum solo two years ago in Jersey City and Friday night in Baltimore with Neutral Milk Hotel, I gotta say it’s no contest. Mangum with Neutral Milk is 20x better. Even “Engine,” a bare-bones, super-personal song that lends itself so well to the “guy-and-guitar” model, is exponentially better–more emotional and sincere somehow–with a humming, droning French horn accompaniment.

    DeVille, you should really just get to a show and test your hypothesis. I think you’ll find that you’re dead wrong.

    • I had the chance to see Mangum solo a few times over the last couple of years, and I was at the Baltimore show, and you are exactly right. Mangum solo is great, but the full band performance is a completely different animal. The upbeat songs especially are injected with an energy that neither the recorded version, nor the solo performance match. They did an up-tempo version of “Leave Me Alone/Gardenhead” that was unbelieveable.

      As great as Jeff is solo, it is no substitute for the full band.

  8. “Whether that’s experienced in the midst of an expertly honed ruckus or distilled to its purest form, it’s a privilege to behold.” Right, so based upon your own conclusion get yourself to one of the many upcoming shows!

    How lazy and privileged we’ve all become. Read this article: http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/music_box/2008/02/the_salinger_of_indie_rock.html
    Only a few years ago it seemed impossible NMH would ever perform again!

    I missed my last chances such as 4/12/98 in San Francisco at Bottom of the Hill (having heard of them for the first time that day, driving with friends to the venue, and finding it was sold out). Now I have tickets to see them in New Orleans in Feb. I will travel there from SF. I am not going to sit around hoping for a West Coast tour to be announced. (And I did see JM in Oakland in 2012 – better than I could have possibly hoped!)

    Gape here at the gaps between performances: http://neutralmilkhotel.org/gigog.htm. There was once a very tragic thing, Terrapin. Magazine of the Syd Barrett Appreciation Society, a fanzine published from 1972-1976 (http://www.angelfire.com/wv/breastmilky/terrapinfz.html). Imagine the tender hope the publisher must have harbored that Syd would return to performing and recording and the incapacitating fear that he wouldn’t. Well Syd lived until 2006 but from 1970 until his death it turns out there is scant to tell of his public activities!

    In short, I can scarcely believe our good fortune, and neither should you (be able to)!

  9. I was at that Kentucky show. After several attempts to get tix to all of the prior shows in a combined effort that took 3 people and 5 laptops, I made a 2 hour drive to Madison, hopped in my friends car, who drove 3 hours to Chicago to pick up another friend and then we all made the 5 hour drive to Cincinatti where we crashed until the show. Those sentiments from people who’d seen the live set from above? I can echo them in full confidence. While I was caught off-guard by the somewhat vicious nature of their set, I was also absolutely enthralled by it. Both the moments of blistering near-recklessness and absolute intimacy. I can’t remember being moved in a way that even comes close to approaching how I felt during the first two songs of the encore (full-band version of “Ferris Wheel On Fire” into “Oh Comely”).

    That entire trip out was surreal and that put a fitting end-cap on things. There’s not much to say once you’ve said everything you possibly can. It’s almost asking too much to want more at this point but there’s already a few articles out there that aptly illustrate the potential of damaging their own mythos.

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