. issue XVII : vi .
Reclusive folk geniuses Neutral Milk Hotel are a bighearted mess of daydreaming reverie. They were when they disappeared, and they continue to be today. As ramshackle-pop construction workers, they play songs imbued with the majesty of a massive, yet ultimately simple, undertaking. They make intricate melodies seem simple and simple songwriting sound complicated. Jeff Mangum only uses a handful of chords to project a pristine image of confused thoughts, manic obsessions, and sexualized World War stories. Behind his voice is a Jurassic amount of wooly fuzz on an acoustic guitar with a secondhand shop horn section scoring the creaky peaks and valleys. Their rousing performance at The National recently was like finding an old scratchy blanket that’s kept you warm in your lean years, with all the bedbugs removed and the coziness intact.
For their second show after a fifteen-year absence, they rolled out of bed and enthusiastically went back to work as if they had never quit. The exponentially unrecognizable Jeff Mangum stalked onto the stage with a full white beard and launched into a confident take on “Two-Headed Boy” to uncontrollable screaming. As the song reached its epilogue, where the lyrics change to a sort of vocal onomatopoeia striving for (and achieving) transcendence, the band and a few extra members filling out on horns appeared to another roar from the audience and kicked right into the mournful soul-searching instrumental “The Fool.” The curve-ball laden setlist then veered between a wonderful combination of B-sides (like the heavy lidded “Ferris Wheel on Fire”) alongside the crowd pleasers from Aeroplane.
Jeff’s signature velvet caterwauling has been pleasantly refined. Somehow his alien locomotive voice has grown more mature, practiced, yet still tearing at the seams. He didn’t try to hit that too-high note in “Oh Comely” as harshly as he had in the past. The new faces, including Mangum’s wife, added an extra fullness that helped them stay true to their original sepia-toned orchestral arrangements. Speaking of the band: everyone on stage was ecstatic to be playing again to the point of a welcome distraction: the most endearing of which was when a sunshine-smiling Julian Koster was jumping up and down while playing accordion so hard that the notes only connected when his feet landed between each jump volley. Everyone seemed so happy to have a huge crowd in front of them. They obliged a wonderful encore after an avalanche of foot stomping and screaming, ending with a blissful-singing, saw-assisted take on “Engine.”
Last Saturday marked the long-awaited return of the greatest musical hermits of the nineties. Whether or not they get around to any new material isn’t important. What is important is that the band got to see how much they matter to a generation that grew up with and after them, and that generation got to see one of their heroes. The sold out crowd was well behaved, emotional, and reverent. Hopefully the fan reaction served as a welcome balm after the band had been mostly ignored in their heydey. They put all of themselves into their performance, not letting the cobwebs on their old trademark sweaters slow them down. Neutral Milk Hotel’s sprays of timeless color and reckless emotion were shot out in a mixture of impressive perfection and scuzzy shambles with incredible enthusiasm and generosity.
by Ryan Myers