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Sara Foss's Thinking It Through
by Sara Foss

Thinking It Through

A Daily Gazette life blog
Her column and blog rolled into one

Jeff Mangum, Live

I didn’t get into the indie-folk band Neutral Milk Hotel until about five years ago, when their album, “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea,” marked its 10th anniversary, and the Albany band Sgt. Dunbar and the Hobo Banned performed it from start to finish at Valentines. I’d heard very little about the album at the time of its release, but in the years since it had gained an enthusiastic cult following, and Sgt. Dunbar’s energetic tribute made me an immediate fan.

The more I learned about Neutral Milk Hotel, the more intrigued I became. In 2008, the online magazine Slate ran an article on Neutral Milk Hotel frontman Jeff Mangum titled “Jeff Mangum, the Salinger of indie rock” in which writer Taylor Clark described Mangum’s retreat from the public eye. Clark wrote that Neutral Milk Hotel, and its mysterious leader, had essentially disappeared, and that as “Aeroplane’s legend began to build, Mangum kept himself busy by having a total nervous breakdown. Laura Carter, his then-girlfriend, told the Atlanta alt-weekly Creative Loafing that he spent entire days sitting in his house in a state of near panic, wearing a pair of old slippers and doing absolutely nothing. He became paranoid, hoarding rice for the inevitable post-Y2K apocalypse.” This bleak period was followed by a period of rebuilding, Clark writes, in which Mangum traveled the world, spent time in a monastery, and released a disc of field recordings of Bulgarian folk music. His reclusiveness angered some of his fans, who felt that Mangum’s failure to release a new album and tour was unnecessarily depriving them of a great talent.

Well, over the past few years Mangum has slowly re-emerged, and is now in the midst of his first tour in years. I saw him Saturday at Mass MoCA in North Adams, Mass., where he played a solo set before a rapt audience. He was engaging and friendly, though I wouldn’t go so far as to describe him as gregarious or effusive, and sang and strummed guitar with intensity and passion, breathing new life into Neutral Milk Hotel’s beloved songs. These rollicking songs are both deeply weird — “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea” is said to have been inspired by Anne Frank, and the lyrics are contain bizarre, almost surrealistic imagery. For instance, in the song “Holland, 1945,” Mangum sings, “The only girl I’ve ever loved/Was born with roses in her eyes/But then they buried her alive/One evening 1945/With just her sister at her side/And only weeks before the guns/All came and rained on everyone/Now she’s a little boy in Spain/Playing pianos filled with flames/On empty rings around the sun.”

For fans of Neutral Milk Hotel, such lyrics serve as a rallying cry, and at Mass MoCA they were transformed into raucous sing-a-longs. After the show, I heard someone observe that it was strange to hear such odd and personal music turned into anthems, but I didn’t find it strange at all — it seemed only natural that Mangum’s fan base would respond to his return by letting him know how much they loved his music, and had internalized every word he’d every written.

While I don’t consider myself a Jeff Mangum (or Neutral Milk Hotel) superfan, I’m really glad I saw him. He might not be widely known out of certain indie-folk type circles, but he is a legend, and his history of unusual, Salinger-like behavior has only burnished his legend. His tour might be the start of a new period of creativity and production, or it might not; either way, it was nice to finally see the man behind some of the more distinctive and original music of the past 15 years bare a little bit of his soul with his adoring public. If he disappears again, it won’t be for lack of people willing to listen.

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