Engine – Neutral Milk Hotel
It’s going to be hard to discuss my experience seeing Jeff Mangum last night without treading a bit into the Messianic. To start with, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is basically a sacred text. It’s almost impossible to believe it could have come from human hands. It is sui generis, sounding like nothing else that has ever (or probably will ever) be made. Mangum wrote the record as a kind of ode to Anne Frank, reaching out over the decades, trying to convey the grandeur of life itself, and its catastrophic loss. It defies any simple explanation, but for me I think it can almost be summed up in this way: for the sake of humanity as a whole, to Anne Frank: we should have done more. And for all that we never did and never will do, we are so very sorry.
And then there is the personal history. Just as the band was gaining an audience back in 1998, Mangum simply disappeared, retreating into himself. As time went on, a few years turned into a decade and more, and it increasingly seemed like he was simply gone for good.
It was achingly sad for all of us who only came to know him after he had already left. I first heard the record in 2000, and spent a decade coming to love it more and more. And it increasingly made sense why he had abandoned the field. The pain of the record is overwhelming; it conveys a kind of special madness, that comes from an overabundance of pathos. The surprising thing, I came to think, was not that he succumbed to depression so soon after his greatest triumph. The surprising thing is that he held it together long enough to make the record at all.
Now, I can’t really know any of this. He certainly was depressed (as the few interviews he’s given over the years have made clear), but it may be entirely my own device to imagine that this can been discovered in the music itself. Maybe a happy and satisfied Jeff Mangum would have made precisely the same record, and gone on to make many more. I would love for that to be the case.
But I think, for a lot of the most dedicated fans, there is a clear analogy. What Anne Frank was to Mangum, he became for us. Someone who suffered intensely, but in spite of this brought a thing of pure beauty and hope into the world. It broke our hearts. And we wanted, more than anything else, to be able to communicate to him just what he has meant to us.
At the same time, we worry that this is over the top. Does he want our adoration? Is that part of what made him give up on music in the first place? And there was an undercurrent of that fear at the show. A slight tension in the audience that showing the depth of our emotion would violate the conditions of his return. A shyness. But just a few minutes into the opener “Two Headed Boy Pt. II,” that tension had faded and was replaced by shivers. And when he sang “God is a place we will wait for the rest of our lives” I was pretty much a puddle on the floor.
As he continued, my sense of wonder just grew and grew. Hearing these songs ringing around me, surrounded by a thousand people feeling the same sense of magic. It was an incredibly powerful experience. As he finished songs, we erupted into applause. In moments of quiet, people would yell out “thank you Jeff” and it felt like the most profound thing I had ever heard.
He played nine of the 11 songs from In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, missing out only on “Communist Daughter” (no big loss) and “[Untitled]” (which I would have loved to hear, but is clearly the song least suited to the stripped-down approach of the show). “Holland 1945” is my favorite of his songs, and while it was great, it only matched my expectations. Some songs that I like a bit less actually ended up being the ones to truly blow me away. “Ghost” has always struck me as a good but not otherworldly song, but the performance here has changed my mind. I’ve always respected “Oh Comely” but never quite loved it, until hearing it last night. And, of all things, “The Fool” was out-of-this-world good. On a night that was mostly just Jeff and his guitar, having the horns and drum out on stage were like a jolt of pure energy. Another clear highlight was his cover of “True Love Will Find You In The End,” which was achingly beautiful.
So he finished the set and the energy in the room was palpable. We all knew that “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea” was still to come in the encore. And it was everything we hoped for. And seemingly a perfect conclusion, to end on “can’t believe how strange it is to be anything at all.” And that’s where a lot of shows on his tour have in fact ended. But we were not deterred by the lights coming back on. We stayed and clapped and cheered and stamped and begged for him to come back.
When he finally came back out for a second encore and they dimmed the lights again it felt strikingly real. He grinned, shrugged, and asked quietly “I guess I could play Engine?” And then he did. And it was wonderful.
So yeah, thank you Jeff. Thank you for making this music, and thank you for finding a way back out here to play it for us one more time.