Jeff Mangum put his hands together, and smiled for the second time of the night as he ended the set. "Have sweet dreams," he said, and Neutral Milk Hotel was real. The music has always been good, and gut-wrenching, but for most of us the people behind it all being in one place making it together was far-off and removed, a cabinet door event shut before our time. Now they're back on tour, last night following up-tempo Elf Power at Brooklyn Academy of Music. Neutral Milk Hotel is one of the slayingist bands ever, but right after their breakthrough album and touring in '97 and '98, they dispersed and the voice behind it, Mangum, wandered elsewhere to navigate different streams of the emotions given body on In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. The music however, phenomenally continued to reverberate and draw an audience without the band present. As Matt Parish said in his recent review from Boston, “few albums have aged as finely as Neutral Milk Hotel’s 1998 masterpiece, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea.” The cause was Mangum's idiosyncrasy as someone who channels and is so consumed by emotions, which gave the music its signature. Although you could distinguish NMH because it’s punk rock and hard-hitting in its arcs, or because there's an openness to the lyrics that allow the listener to dip into their own experiences and feel like Mangum is articulating them exactly right, what is said most is that the music is deeply felt.
NMH's opus encapsulates this as they churn Mangum's waking empathy for and shook dreams of Anne Frank with the highs of vibrating circus music and baroque lows from the band's vaudville score. What was behind it was Mangum trying to use music as catharsis for himself and others to push back the pains that are here for all of us but singled him out as their lightning rod. He made the songs possessed by dreams and crying for days about Anne, overflowing with the loss of someone very close. Reflecting on the creation shortly after in the Puncture Magazine interview revived by Pitchfork, he said he "realized that I can't just sing my way out of all this suffering." But it was his attempt, for his friends and the rest of us.
Aeroplane was also drafted as Mangum made his own way behind Anne in places we make but aren't supposed to live in, Mangum in friends' closets, Anne in her attic. The songs he knit in these vacuous spaces made her a real person, not a stone martyr. And part of that is that the songs' admiration hint at Mangum being in love with Anne, a real girl, someone with feelings and personality, not a case study of something sad and horrible that we should learn something from. That's why the music touches a chord, is described as being so deeply felt, and continues to pull on people to sing along, more than a decade after the band put it out there and then packed up camp. It's the same substance that Neil Young chokes you with as a woman throws her baby away in "Rockin' in the Free World":
Now she puts the kid away,
and she's gone to get a hit
She hates her life,
and what she's done to it
There's one more kid
that will never go to school
Never get to fall in love,
never get to be cool.
You can read about it in the papers, you can hear it, and watch it on television, but you won't feel it until you're tugged by the same internal pulleys as other people in their separate bodies. In Mangum and Young's cases, the raw material pulled through is suffering. You feel Anne's loss, you see the openness of the rest of her life laid out before her and that she can't have it because it's going to be taken away. You feel for that kid because you know what it's like to go to school, fall in love, to be cool from time to time, and he's never gonna get that. Outside of these songs, there's got to be hundreds of thousands of strangers we have the potential to commune with—a kid in Syria, a mom in CAR, a guy in Iraq getting his throat cut—that have the same close coming in their lives, but we don't get a hand inside our ribcages tying us to them until something like NMH's and Young's grit come along.
The band shot hard the whole way through last night at BAM and didn’t let up, the other members riding between different instruments without breaking pace. They continue in New York until the 28th and around the world through August. Mangum is still trying to make a difference, donating a dollar from each of the BAM tickets to The Interference Archive, an organization that grew out of the activism and collecting of his late friend Dara Greenwald. But how he’ll attempt to carve his songs as catalyst and what the completely new ones will sound like are both on hold at the moment. What’s next from the gift given Mangum and Co. by the spirit world will have to wait until the current tour makes the songs from NMH’s generative period real for the different generations that were sharing them as dreams without players for more than ten years. If you can get in there for this holding period, do it. It’s going to be piercing.
Cameron Cuchulainn is on Twitter. Follow him - @Bobby4Apples