Jeff Mangum, renowned frontman of Neutral Milk Hotel, recently emerged from his hiatus for one last tour. Luckily for his fanbase here at IU, he stopped by Bloomington’s most adorably-named theater, the Buskirk-Chumley, to give a (mostly) solo acoustic performance.
Jeff Mangum took the stage wearing a pale yellow yoke sweater, drab green trousers, floppy hat, and a fiercely fluffy white-streaked beard + ‘burns. He looked a little like a wandering hermit, but an endearing one, possibly one that could have been conceptualized by Wes Anderson. He sat on a black chair on an undecorated stage, surrounded by water bottles. He pulled out throat spray and spat off to the side on the stage between most songs. During the performance of the first song, “Two-Headed Boy Pt. 1,” he repeatedly requested the sound mixer to tweak the levels (“Twoooo headed boy littlemoreguitarpleaseKevin there’s no reason to grieve”). Mangum did not seem to be interesting in putting on a performative persona. That was fine. No one was there to see a performative persona.
This isn’t to say that he was unprofessional. He just lacked the self-assured zeal for attention of other performers. Some bands get on stage and eat up the audience’s attention, frolicking like sugarhigh children in the glow. It kind of looked like Jeff Mangum had made an uneasy impasse with the music industry, like he loved playing his music just enough to put up with the performative baloney that it entailed, but not enough to wear sparkle pants.
For some context on the demographics at this concert: I am what I would call an Entry-Level Jeff Mangum fan. I listened to the album In The Aeroplane Over The Sea obsessively during high school. I cried when Mangum sang about the day we will die and our ashes will fly. Mangum’s concert at the Buskirk-Chumley made it very clear to me that there are fans like me, and then there’s the Yelling Fans. Many listeners’ enthusiasm ended up straddling the line between “affectionate” and “sexual harassment.” Here is a list of things fans yelled at Jeff Mangum during song breaks:
- WE LOVE YOU
- I LOVE YOU
- COME ON BLOOMINGTON WE CAN TREAT HIM BETTER THAN THIS
- (in response to the above) SHUT UP
- GUYS STOP YOU’RE GONNA FREAK HIM OUT
- JEFF MANGUM YOU MY N***AAAA
- DONT BE NERVOUS! (in response to a moment of hesitation from Mangum)
- JUST PICTURE US NAKED!
- …WE’RE PICTURING YOU NAKED
- DO YOU WANT TO GET ICE CREAM WITH ME AFTER THE SHOW?
…to which Mangum murmured in reply, “No thanks. I don’t need ice cream.” This polite acknowledgment elicited hollers and clapping. But then, so did everything Jeff Mangum did. This audience was a cult audience, in all its awkward, overenthusiastic, over-sharing glory.
What is it about Neutral Milk Hotel, and Jeff Mangum in particular, that inspires such ardent enthusiasm? Part of the frenzy was certainly induced by the rarity of the performance. Mangum has always had an air of elusiveness, which was made concrete by his sudden and complete retreat from the music industry. There was still a miraculous feeling to the fact that this man was on stage before us.
But there’s also an innate quality to NMH’s music that still attracts listeners 15 years after Aeroplane’s release. There’s something transcendental in the combination of unrestrained instrumentation, Mangum’s melodious howl, and the lyrics themselves. Aeroplane views tragedy through a lens of beauty, transforming death and suffering into bizarre, gentle poetry. Mangum is of the singer-songwriter poet class. It doesn’t matter that his singing voice isn’t a classical pop or rock voice. The point of NMH isn’t to be stylish or mind-numbing music. In Mangum’s words, “The music wasn’t just there for entertainment: we were trying to create some sort of change.” (source)
The songs were mostly classics, including many of the best songs from Neutral Milk Hotel’s small discography. There were whoops of recognition from the audience within the first few chords of most songs. A horn player from Briars of North America, an opening band, joined Mangum for a few songs. Mangum took the stage again after a several minutes of disorganized clapping evolved into the universally-recognized synchronized “encore” clap:
“CLAP… CLAP… CLAP. CLAP. CLAPCLAPCLAP clapclapclapclapclapwefdsbjmn,qewbjfdsake”
And then Jeff Mangum trudged back on stage, picked up a burnished guitar, and told his best story. It’s a sad one, about a beautiful face and a place that is circling all round the sun.