Jeff Mangum, lead singer and songwriter for the 90s indie rock band, Neutral Milk Hotel, is quite an enigmatic figure. He hasn’t released any new music under the Neutral Milk Hotel moniker since 1998. No one knows if he’s written anything since that point, that he’s like the Salinger of indie rock, leading a quiet life writing music only for himself, or if he’s totally dried up and incapable of writing anything. It’s likely somewhere in between–in a 2002 interview with Pitchfork, Mangum said he hadn’t written in a while, but also said he writes songs and being unsatisfied with them, throws them out. With his recent triumphant return to the music scene years after that interview, perhaps new material will be released at some point. Mangum is a man shrouded in mystery to most. For the decade since his band Neutral Milk Hotel’s critically acclaimed album In the Aeroplane Over the Sea was released, little is publicly known about Mangum’s life. Forget what he’s been doing with his time, few sources agree on where he’s been for the bulk of the past 13 years. Some say he’s been living quietly in Athens, Georgia, others that he’s traveled all over, hopping from friend’s house to friend’s house. It’s a mystery created out of hearsay and the rampant curiosity of fans and journalists who starve for answers. The truth is, it doesn’t really matter where Mangum’s been–what matters is that Mangum’s returned.
Despite the following of devoted fans, and the accolades from publications, musicians, and Stephen Colbert, you may not know who Jeff Mangum even is. You may have never heard of Neutral Milk Hotel, so back to the beginning, back to the roots of what made Mangum the icon he is today. Neutral Milk Hotel was the name Mangum began using for his recordings in the early 1990’s. For years, Neutral Milk Hotel wasn’t really a band as much as simply Mangum and whoever felt like playing with him at any given moment. After releasing his first full-length album as Neutral Milk Hotel in 1996, On Avery Island, Mangum was joined by Julian Koster, Jeremy Barnes, and Scott Spillane for touring, and Neutral Milk Hotel as it is commonly viewed was formed. Two years later, Neutral Milk Hotel released their second and final album, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, an album that continues to sell and gain the band new fans today. Listed as one of the greatest albums of all time by more than one source, it’s now heralded as genius and revolutionary by many. Less than a year after its release, after Neutral Milk Hotel started to create some buzz in the indie rock scene, they disappeared. The band broke up, went on hiatus, whatever you want to call it. Mangum disappeared, popping up here and there, but only playing Neutral Milk Hotel songs a few times over the next decade. Recently though, Mangum has returned to playing shows and playing Neutral Milk Hotel songs. After all these years, why is Mangum still relevant, and not just relevant, but able to sell out shows in seconds? How did In the Aeroplane Over the Sea manage to be the sixth best-selling vinyl in 2008, when it was 10 years old and still rather obscure?
It’s Mangum’s return to music that’s prompted me to ask these questions. In early November, Mangum announced a string of solo shows, and this time he was coming to Philadelphia. I first heard about Neutral Milk Hotel in 2007. Brand New covered “Oh Comely,” a song from In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, at a show I went to. I was confused, and intrigued, by the lyrics–I knew it wasn’t a Brand New song. I wasn’t really ready for Neutral Milk Hotel at that point in my life. I didn’t get it, a sentiment I share with many people when they first hear Mangum’s voice. But it grew on me. Slowly, but surely. Initially, I preferred covers. I just couldn’t get past Mangum’s voice–now that’s strange to me, now I find it beautiful. At some point in the years that followed, I fell in love with In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. I think it’s one of the most beautiful and perfect albums I’ve ever heard. Naturally, when I saw that Mangum was coming to Philly, I knew I had to go. I expected it to sell out fast, and I had work when the tickets went on sale, so I put it in the hands of my boyfriend. We got the tickets. It sold out in 35 seconds–and that’s what really intrigued me. How could that happen?
I talked to Sean Agnew, founder of r5 Productions, the do-it-yourself company that’s hosting Mangum’s gig in Philly, about the show. Agnew, a fan of Neutral Milk Hotel, told me, “We have been working on this show for about two years now. This was the sixth set of dates we were working with, and it finally came together. Initially, it was going to be one of his very first shows.” I asked Agnew if he was surprised by how quickly the show sold out, and he said, “I assumed with so many New Jersey and New York City shows that it would sell quickly, but like in a day or two. It sold out in 35 seconds. That completely blew my mind. Unreal. It destroyed out previous sold out record.” In case you’re wondering, scalping simply isn’t an issue for this show–all the tickets are will-call only, and a valid ID is required to get your tickets and get in on the night of the show. Ticket sales were limited to four tickets per person, in an effort to keep things fair as well. How many tickets did Mangum sell out in less than a minute? Over 1,200 at UPenn’s Irvine Auditorium. The last time Neutral Milk Hotel played in Philly it was at the venue now known as the Legendary Dobbs. It’s a tiny bar, basically a hole in the wall on South Street.
So that’s the context, that’s the facts of the matter, now to the cerebral part. Why do people still care enough about Mangum to pounce on the opportunity to see him with such zeal? What’s so special, what’s the almost magnetic draw of his music? If you’re unfamiliar with Neutral Milk Hotel, I can tell you this: Mangum’s lyrics are strange, outside of reality even. In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is full of references to Anne Frank (specifically: “Holland, 1945,” “Oh Comely,” “Ghost”). That’s grounded in reality in some way, but take a look at some of the other song titles: “The King of Carrot Flowers Pt. One” and “Two-Headed Boy.” Incredibly strange and surreal. I got the opportunity to talk to Brooklyn singer-songwriter Kevin Devine about Mangum and Neutral Milk Hotel (you can hear Kevin’s cover of “Holland, 1945” at the end of this post). There’s little I can add to his description of how and why Neutral Milk Hotel draws you in, “There’s something mysterious and beautiful about it. It’s passionate without being cloying, deeply felt without being obvious, well-arranged without being over the top, and amateurish in aspects of its performance without being poorly played. It feels dreamt but present, not absently like a pretty soundscape or something similar. It’s lucid but hallucinatory…I think his lyrics are beautiful and strange. They’re abstract but somehow totally, almost invasively, relatable; they’re surreal and oddly sexual/violent at turns, but also really lovely. Literally sensual, as in obsessed with the senses. They’re like these patient, deliberate sets of waves, row after row. Something in them feels massive and elemental. Hard to explain, but not hard to feel.” The songs have this fragmented quality, yet they’re still totally whole, in a way that Kevin Devine somehow manages to echo in his explanation.
That feeling of connection is echoed by Kimberly Southwick, editor-in-chief of literary magazine Gigantic Sequins, professor of English at Rowan University, and Neutral Milk Hotel fan. When I asked her what drew her to Mangum’s music, she gave me a similar response, “His music is…driven. The sounds he makes are purposeful, and the lyrics are interesting, which is vague but true…The lyrices are about people/things/events that have no direct connection or even correlation with events in my life and emotions that I feel, yet I still feel as though I can relate to them. I know no two-headed boy, but I still feel something when Mangum says, ‘I will take you and leave you alone / watching spirals of white softly flow / over your eyelids and all you did will wait until the point when you let go,’ for example, though I can’t explain to you why.” Similarly when I hear, “now he rides a comet’s flame and won’t be coming back again. The earth looks better from a star that’s right above from where you are. He didn’t mean to make you cry with sparks that ring and bullets fly on empty rings around your heart. The world just screams and falls apart” I can’t explain to you how or why I can relate to it. I can’t tell you what it means. I could try to analyze it, do a close reading, figure out grammatically which pronoun goes with which object, but I think that would only tarnish it. The meaning, for me, is meant to be felt, not understood. We do not need to know what Mangum means to understand it on some other level.
Maybe now there’s some insight into what sets Mangum’s music apart, what makes people love it and feel such a deep connection to it, but still, for someone who hasn’t released a new song in 13 years, selling out a 1,200 seat venue in 35 seconds is pretty impressive. Despite the devoted and ever-growing fan base, Mangum isn’t that big–he’s more on the level of a cult icon. In the Aeroplane Over the Sea has sold over 300,000 copies, but that’s in a span of 13 years. As far as the music industry goes, that’s pretty small. So why is Mangum still relevant today and able to sell out shows like this r5 date, despite basically disappearing for years? Kevin Devine answered, “Because he made a truly special, magical, singular artistic statement and then walked away from the machinery of ‘professional music,’ abandoned the circuitry and lived a life for 13 years and let his work speak for itself in his absence. People listened.” I remember hearing somewhere that part of the reason Mangum stopped was that Aeroplane was too perfect. He could never beat it, never top it. His art would never reach that level again, so he stopped and let it stand on its own and speak for itself. No one really knows if that’s true, except Mangum himself, but it seems to fit, myth or reality. In addition to commenting on the importance of the quality of his music, Southwick answered, “There’s something about stopping that makes what you do more compelling for a mysterious reason. It’s the mystery of it. The ‘why’ that doesn’t get answered…the show selling out makes sense, and that’s because people who have built up the character of Mangum via his solitude and quietness are interested to see him ‘in the flesh,’ and also to perhaps learn more about why he disappeared for so long.” For me, it’s a combination of all they said, coupled with the fact that this very well may be my only opportunity to see Mangum live. We can only speculate as to whether or not this is Mangum’s return to the music scene, or simply a farewell, a gift to all his fans, the new and old, who may have never gotten to see him play before.
Regardless of the complicated reasons why people listen to Mangum–what makes us “fall down its rabbit hole,” as Kevin Devine said, why we bought tickets as if our lives depended on it, why Mangum stopped making music and why he started performing again, one fact remains: Jeff Mangum is still influential. The fact that he hasn’t produced music in over a decade doesn’t matter, nor do the reasons why he stopped, interesting as they may be. The only thing that matters is the music he created. In an interview with Pitchfork, where Mangum spoke about what made him stop, he explained, “We had a very utopian vision that we could overcome anything through music. The music wasn’t just there for entertainment: we were trying to create some sort of change. We had a desire to transform our lives, and the listener’s lives. I guess I had this idea that if we all created our dream we could live happily ever after.” Mangum says he came to realize that this wasn’t realistic, but in a way I think he has achieved that with Neutral Milk Hotel. The connection that people feel to that music, the catharsis of listening to it, even when you know you really can’t relate, creates something incredibly special, and it can create change. Mangum’s music continues to inspire and help people today. I asked Devine, as a fan of Neutral Milk Hotel, how Mangum influenced him as a songwriter. “It just all kinda gets into your DNA. I’ve listened to his music quite a bit, that one record [Aeroplane] literally thousands of times. I think I’ve tried to take some of that openness, that fearlessness, that expressiveness without being cheesy or corny. It’s hard to emulate wonder or magic. You just hope some of it dusts off on you,” he said. Mangum created wonder. He created magic, and ultimately that’s the reason he remains such an iconic figure in indie rock.
As I write this, the music and lyrics of In the Aeroplane Over the Sea swirl around in my brain, creating a perfect cacophony of beautiful strangeness, as dark as it is whimsical. On the last track, “Two-Headed Boy Pt. Two,” Mangum sings, “and when we break, we’ll wait for our miracle. God is a place you will wait for the rest of your life.” What Mangum means by that isn’t important to me. When I listen to him sing it, and it sends a shiver down my spine, I just know deep in my soul that it’s true.
For a visual on Neutral Milk Hotel’s career, check out the timeline I put together here.