At the bright age of 17, I took my first paycheck from Round Table Pizza, logged on to Etsy, and bought a pair of Vans slip-ons hand-painted with art from Neutral Milk Hotel’s 1998 sophomore LP, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. It was an investment made at the intersection of teenaged audacity, disposable income, and confrontational passion.
Those shoes weren’t donned with any irony, which almost seems impossible in retrospect. They were worn by a lonely, laughable soul affected so deeply by a specific selection of the indie rock canon that he had to infringe copyrights in order to get his message to the rest of the world. There’s something about Neutral Milk Hotel, all right. You could see it in all the young faces packing the Moody Theater Monday night for the first of two shows by the band.
In the Aeroplane Over the Sea was made by a band that until last year had been broken up since just before this millennium. No website, no promotion, no offshoots, no hint of new music. Then there’s the singer who’s remained reclusive for about as long as he’s been famous. Put all that together and you get two sold-out nights at one of Austin’s biggest venues. Aeroplane built a cult.
I stood near the merch table, watching a lady tear open a box of Neutral Milk Hotel posters. Along the wall hung shirts – shirts! Officially licensed Neutral Milk Hotel regalia. For many of us, the idea that Neutral Milk Hotel has become an indie rock band that plays indie rock shows kinda messes with the sexy mystery. Cults rarely gather in a place selling $6 Bud Lights, but now I can wear the Athens, Ga., collective’s Elephant Six logo with a credit card swipe.
The crowd chittered and buzzed. It’s almost unheard of that someone shunning fame so rigorously then returns to the spotlight, but here Jeff Mangum would be playing his guitar for us in a matter of hours! This was as close as any of us would ever come to cashing in on whatever unsolved zealotry that might be tugging at our sides. Whatever kept drawing us back in to a long-gone band. The dawn was coming, whether we were ready or not.
And then there he was. A salt-and-pepper-bearded Jeff Mangum himself. Jeff Mangum, holding a guitar and singing “Two-Headed Boy” in his perfectly cracked voice. Jeff Magnum, all by his lonesome, strumming carefully but firm. And no, I still don’t know what, “There is no reason to grieve/The world that you need is wrapped up in gold silver sleeves” means, but suddenly I felt the immense comfort that Jeff Mangum doesn’t have the answers anymore either.
He’s just a vessel now, to Neutral Milk Hotel songs that are 20 years old. There’s no immediacy or gravitas anymore. The band’s back to give the people what they want and make a little money along the way. Fair enough. They raged into “Holland, 1945,” a song I’ve imagined hearing live since I was 16. A rush of color, a few kids raging, and it’s over. I dangle for a moment. So that was that, then?
There’s little reason to be cynical. Mangum never samples. That means a starry-eyed Julian Koster of Music Tapes fame serenaded us with a singing saw for Aeroplane’s title track and languid accordion through the first act of “King of Carrot Flowers.” The brass, perhaps the most vital part of Neutral Milk Hotel’s sound, was present and gorgeous through “Fool” and especially “Snow Song Pt. 1.”
Mangum’s centerpiece performance of “Oh Comely” was perhaps the most eye-grabbing moment of the evening, if only for the collective catharsis of 2,500-plus fans hanging heavy on the air. It crowned everything you could’ve possibly wanted from a Neutral Milk Hotel show, performed with the accuracy and engagement that sometimes escapes the lifers. And yet, I couldn’t help recalling the feeling in my gut when I bought those shoes.
Aeroplane was loaded with tangible, violent, throat-shredding loss. I still hear the ghosts. I hear the secrets ducking behind every corner. I hear the things that made me so obsessive long ago. The Neutral Milk Hotel reunion tour will not quench that thirst. Nothing ever will, and that might be what makes In the Aeroplane Over the Sea undeniable. The feeling that we’ll never be totally satisfied with our conclusion.
ACL Live at the Moody Theater set-list, 2.17.14
“Two-Headed Boy Part 1”
“A Baby for Pree/Glow Into You”
“Gardenhead/Leave Me Alone”
“King of Carrot Flowers Pt. 1, 2, 3”
“In the Aeroplane Over the Sea”
“Ferris Wheel on Fire”
“Song Against Sex”
“Snow Song Pt. 1”
“Two-Headed Boy Pt. 2”
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