In the current age of paint-by-number lyrics, where every second word is molly and each word preceding that is pop-a, it’s easy to forget that an artist’s words can be truly beautiful.
I was reminded of this last night, as Jeff Mangum took the stage to play the last of three consecutive nights at The Roundhouse with his band, Neutral Milk Hotel. Alone, bathed in blue light, he launched into ‘Oh Comely‘ and the crowd around me stood completely transfixed. For those unaware (which, by the way, is fine – it gives you something to look forward to), Neutral Milk Hotel have been somewhat absent for over a decade since the release of their genre-defining ‘In The Aeroplane Over The Sea’ way back in 1998. Naturally, many of the audiences attendees will have gotten into that masterpiece after the band went into that self-imposed hiatus, myself included. For us, there was always the dream that they would return to grace the stage again. As each year went by, it seemed less and less likely until, low and behold, they announced a gargantuan run of shows. Their performance this particular night was a moment that many had been dreaming of for an awfully long time. At points, it felt like a religious experience; Mangum, the messiah, returning from the dead to sing songs about cheating fathers and, notably, Anne Frank.
Despite selling out shows across the United States and Europe, Neutral Milk Hotel still very much feel like a personal band. They’re a band you find digging through CD’s at a boot sale or trawling relentlessly through the internet). They feel like a secret gem, and because Mangum’s words are so abstract, so easily adaptable, it can feel sometimes like he’s talking directly to you. Of course, this can be said for a lot of artists, but the main appeal of Neutral Milk has always been the poetic grandeur of Mangum’s stream of consciousness wordplay. As such, the singalongs had a hint of separation; we, the crowd, weren’t consciously singing together, the way you might grab a pal at an Arcade Fire concert. The singing was instead the result of what felt like a personal connection with Mangum himself. Having sang these words into our headphones for so long, he was now simply singing them to us in person. This gave the concert an added poignancy, as people of all ages lived out a dream from long ago, to sing Mangum’s powerful words loudly and proudly, in the company of others who can appreciate the intimacy of his writing.
Of course, Mangum did not play alone. He was accompanied by the original ‘In The Aeroplane Over The Sea’ line up, and boy, were those guys exciting to watch. Quite clearly hyped out of their minds to be back doing the do, they played with a seismic energy that kept punch-punch-punching at all of us, through instruments as diverse as singing saws and flugelhorns. There were beards aplenty, making the shaven amongst the crowd feel exceptionally less manly. They, like us, sang along with every word and bounded around the stage from instrument to instrument. In the age of the reunion, it’s refreshing to see a band that is truly enjoying the chance to perform again, to larger audiences who sing back every hornline and re-affirm the importance of their contributions to the musical world.
I found out about Neutral Milk Hotel listening to a Brand New bootleg on a bus in 2008. As soon as I got in, I got my hands on what I could and, as cliche as it may be in ‘indie’ circles, what I heard changed my life, and my approach to music. Seeing them yesterday was all I hoped it would be. From ‘Holland‘, ‘1945‘, to ‘The Ghost‘, to ‘Songs Against Sex‘, to the closing, ‘Engine‘, Neutral Milk Hotel take you places you really must go. Mangum’s return from wherever he may have been hiding is a blessing, as these are songs that deserve to be played live and appreciated by people around the world. In the time since it’s release, In The Aeroplane Over The Sea has become somewhat of a ‘hipster-God-tier record’, frequently laughed on the 4chan’s /mu/ forum for being ‘so totally hip and cool’. This stigma is unfortunate, because it’s so much more than that, and the reason it has become the butt of some jokes is because it is so wonderful, and people like laughing at things that are popular.
The Roundhouse show proved however that it doesn’t really matter. People will always be hating. I’m just thankful I got the chance to see them play, and leaving the venue, all I heard around me was the sound of awe. Everyone there knew they’d seen something special.