Deconstructing: Neutral Milk Hotel And The Real Value Of Solo Performance

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.