In 2012, Neutral Milk Hotel’s Jeff Mangum went on his first national tour in nearly sixteen years. An old friend attended the tour’s first concert on January 18 at Shubert Theater in New Haven and I attended the February 8 show at Milwaukee’s Pabst Theater. Being one of our favorite artists, we took the opportunity to compare the two shows for the now defunct magazine, Cultural Transmogrifier. Below is an edited version of that collaboration.
Reflections on the Man Himself
Bryan: After some mic difficulties and a change of microphone chords, the stage was emptied of help and Mangum walked out, setting everything in motion. He is the largest man I have ever seen play guitar on stage. His presence is a powerful one; and he strums harder than anyone I have seen before. Sheer reverberation from his rumbling, quick, knife-like strumming killed any potentiality that wanted to remain still. And his voice is as moist as slightly damp, thick, packing cardboard, but strong as cedar, flattening the air like feet slapping across dry desert clay.
There is a flat shrillness to his voice when he gets to the top of his register—the sound reflecting off the back of his mouth and along the top, which with the high volume of the mic and the acoustics of the venue was painful at times, just in terms of sensation. The other noteworthy feature is his breathing: noticeably adjusting his posture, straightening his spine to fill his lungs to capacity for the serious yells, like in “Oh Comely” when he’s going up and up with “For me–eee–eeee—ae.”
Melissa: I’ve often noticed even just listening to him on his albums that he has an incredible lung capacity, which becomes all the more prominent hearing him live. When I try to sing along with him I usually run out of breath. On “Two-Headed Boy” when he sings, “I am listening to hear where you are,” I always have trouble making it through that “are.”
Although Mangum does have a powerful presence, he still struck me as feeling slightly uncomfortable on stage, mumbling often between songs so it was hard for me to catch many of the things he said. Despite some social unease, though, he does seem like a cool guy. At the beginning of the show, everyone was seated. Jeff seemed to sense tension in the room, that people wanted to be more expressive, engaged, and close to him, but no one had the courage to get up of their own accord. So he said we could come up by the stage, “I don’t care.” He said it quickly and nonchalantly, like a quick side note, then continued singing as though he hadn’t said it at all.
Reflections on the Set List
Melissa: He opened the show with the beautiful “Two-Headed Boy Pt. 2.” As the last track on 1998’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, it seems often forgotten or overlooked. Opening with this song gave it the recognition it deserves, and foreshadowed the haunting, yet earnest nature of the songs to come.
“And in my dreams you’re alive and you’re crying / As your mouth moves in mine, soft and sweet / Rings of flowers round your eyes / And I’ll love you for the rest of your life when you’re ready.”
I had hoped to hear Mangum play In the Aeroplane Over the Sea straight through. Although he did not, he still played most of the album, just out of order. This actually fascinates me because people often say that this album must be played straight through, as it’s essentially “one long song.” I guess they’re wrong? He played a couple of my favorite songs from 1996’s On Avery Island as well—“Song Against Sex,” “A Baby for Pree,” and “Gardenhead/Leave Me Alone.”
Bryan: We probably had a similar set list. The highlight for me was “Oh Comely,” which was well worth the hour-and-a-half trip to see the show. Pure magic. And I love the droning quality to his voice at times, especially that transition into “I know they buried her body with others”—he sustains a single note, that elongated “da” reminiscent of “om,” which he elegantly exaggerated at the show and it crept right into my flesh.
Melissa: He played “Oh Comely” at The Pabst as well. That song in particular exemplifies the intimate and tragic tone that inundates Aeroplane. What could be more tragic than loving someone that you will never exist simultaneously alongside (i.e. Anne Frank)? His desperation to save her, but the impossibility of that desire ever being actualized is heartbreaking, and you can feel his pain:
“I know they buried her body with others / Her sister and mother and 500 families / And will she remember me, 50 years later / I wished I could save her / In some sort of time machine.”
Bryan: I think it is the most romantic love story I have ever heard. Love works its way straight through crooked lines and what the Mangum-Frank love relationship exhibits is the triumph of love over death and tragedy. At the very least maybe we can look at one another a little differently, like maybe we’ve been chasing each other across time through rebirths.
Melissa: A compelling idea that Mangum expresses with subtlety and ardor throughout Aeroplane. Most of the show, I eagerly anticipated the album’s title track and worried Jeff wouldn’t play it, but knew he must because it’s one of his most popular songs. And he knows it, so he saved it for his encore, to quench our thirst and to get us off his back. The vivid imagery the song contains is both beautiful and disturbing.
“Now how I remember you / How I would push my fingers through your mouth to make those muscles move / That make your voice so smooth and sweet.”
Bryan: He played “Aeroplane” for his encore in New Haven as well. But we were lucky enough to have a saws man around, whom, I understand was not on hand in Milwaukee. The song has its substance in prisms, and to watch the saws man bending the light and drawing it into thin strands actually made the guitar slightly coarse, but it also helped to differentiate the types of light present in the song. It is an image I will have stuck in my head for some time to come.
Reflections on the Audience
Melissa: The audience at the Pabst was incredibly engaged and participatory. They often sang along, of course to his better known, more popular songs—“King of Carrot Flowers,” “Two-Headed Boy,” “Holland 1945,” and “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea.” Strange to think of Mangum having “hits” and that even he can have a fanatical, frenzied following reminiscent of pop fans. Most people stood from their seats and many flooded the aisles to get closer to the stage. Some people danced and waved their arms in the air.
Bryan: At the New Haven show, people sang along occasionally and during one song started to clap when encouraged by Mangum but it died off after about a minute, before it even had a chance to get off-beat like live audiences often do.
Melissa: Mangum seemed to like our audience, and if I remember correctly, even told us that we were great. But you had mentioned to me Mangum didn’t particularly care for your audience, or didn’t seem to.
Bryan: Yeah, he seemed a little uncomfortable with us—the energy just felt off. Neil Young talks about how important of an effect the audience can have—there is a type of audience that shows up, sits back, and says “Here I am—this better be impressive…I’m pretty hip and ready for it…” and people just sit there and don’t do anything—that is sort of what things felt like at times, myself included. People got into the music but only intermittently—like until self-consciousness set in. Or it just wasn’t an expressive bunch. This type of audience can have a deadening effect on the energy.
Melissa: I think Mangum enjoyed people gathering around the stage, and singing along with him, because really, it created a sense of community. We were all very visibly joined together by this music we all know so well and love so deeply. And our behavior showed him that his music has not only made an impression on us, but has deeply moved us.
Reflections on Listening to Mangum’s Music in a Public Venue
Bryan: There is good and bad in seeing Mangum live. The bad is the easiest to see—because the music is so personal, we can get possessive of it and want him to perform for only us, because he is one of those artists who just knows how to state what you’re feeling but can’t express, and how to do it in a poetic way that is attractive, or that allows you personal access to his mind, and this creates a natural intimacy.
Melissa: Definitely. This reminds me of something a friend once wrote about Neutral Milk Hotel—Aeroplane is an album that so many of its fans feel Mangum wrote especially for them, for only them.
Bryan: Including us.
Melissa: Yes, including us. So it was somewhat jarring to see hundreds of strangers sing songs by heart that I began to think were secret songs of my soul (please excuse my excessive sentimentality).
Bryan: The good thing though is that if we are confronted with this, and become aware of this, even vaguely, and look around at the hundreds of other faces and accompanying humans, all unique, we realize that solipsism is sick, and that somehow this music is part of all of these people’s lives, and actually doesn’t belong to anyone. We become aware that all these other people have lives as subjective and real as ours. And yet here occurs something that is inside and out, something that is occurring in a room where all these subjective spaces have gathered and so we get a sensation of the isotropic nature of the universe.
Melissa: For sure—where we may often fall back on thinking the universe expands from ourselves alone (albeit inadvertently and subconsciously), a concert like this makes us realize (hopefully) that it expands from every single person.
Overall Reaction to the Concert
Melissa: I really enjoyed the concert and since then, have been listening to Aeroplane nonstop. Being in such an emotionally charged atmosphere, in which I felt connected to every human being around me, naturally re-imbued life with value. Jeff Mangum is one of my favorite musicians and seeing him perform live made me even more in love with him than ever. But you had expressed some disappointment with the New Haven show.
Bryan: I was let down but I had expectations so huge and fantastic they were ugly. But it was a combination of audience, venue, and vague, fantastic expectations. And then it was all over too quickly for me. I like to get a sense of the artist at a show and I felt that this occurred, but just not enough—the concert never really settled down enough to “connect.” Granted, it was the first show of the tour. Actually I am happy for the experience. It ultimately wasn’t good or bad or a letdown or anything, and the experience led me to some personal revelations that just are not interesting enough to share.
Melissa: One thing I would have liked at this concert is new music from Mangum. Although the songs he played made me incredibly happy and caused some sort of fervor, new songs would have given me hope that I could reasonably expect a new album from him in the near future.
Bryan: I was surprised as well, and I have to think that someone as creative as Mangum has been creating something while traveling around the world. I am guessing he either has been playing stuff and just is not into the whole production process, or he’s been sitting back and taking in his experiences, watching…not that he NEEDS to give us anything, he doesn’t owe us a thing, and he was able to do something not many of us get a chance to do: create something that helps people in some meaningful, personal way—something that can be especially comforting.
Melissa: Definitely. But I still hope that the shows he plays throughout this year are not merely a brief appearance before Mangum goes back into seclusion. I would love to see a new album from him, but I could be content with him performing Neutral Milk Hotel’s current two amazing albums until his ashes fly from the aeroplane over the sea.