Of all the expectations you could have had for Neutral Milk Hotel’s Saturday headlining slot at Pitchfork Festival—a standoffish Jeff Mangum; a crowd of people in paisley print “not getting” Neutral Milk Hotel—a rowdy moshpit probably would have been at the bottom of the list, if on it at all. But there I was, throwing bows, moving with a rising tide, trying to make sure I didn’t fall over and get squashed by a million pairs of Keds as the crowd went mental to “Holland, 1945.” In terms of ferocity, it probably won’t come close to beating the pit that’s sure to form when Deafheaven play Sunday, but in terms of sheer size, it was the biggest pit I’ve experienced. And it formed during a song that imagines the reincarnation of Anne Frank. If you want proof that anything is possible, there it is.
Among all of the larger font acts on the bill, Neutral Milk Hotel were met with the most trepidation going into the weekend. Their reunion tour up to now has been a church service at the altar of the infallibility of our One True Lord and Savior Jeff Mangum. There's been reports of hushed, reverent crowds, and a “perfect” setlist divined from the inner 19-year-old indie rock aesthete residing in every Neutral Milk Hotel fan. There were also reports of Mangum hardly talking–seeming to be as attention-shy as always–and seemingly performing more for the financial rewards than a need to connect with his audience. How would that translate to a festival audience that was turning up for hours before Neutral Milk Hotel went on? Would a Neutral Milk Hotel set translate on the same stage as a Danny Brown set?
But then Mangum shuffled onto the stage and blasted his way through 17 songs that plucked at the heartstrings of everyone’s indie rock nostalgia–even while looking like a cross between Fidel Castro and a comedy sketch about bad attempts at remaining incognito. The people around me near the front of the stage spent the set moshing, crying, singing every lyric to every song, and debating whether or not it would be possible to take Molly during Neutral Milk Hotel and roll happily (consensus said no; “The only drug I need during this is my own sadness”). It was somehow everything you expected a Neutral Milk Hotel festival spot to be and more.
Photo via @stephapelvis
And I’m saying this as someone who went to Neutral Milk Hotel worried I wouldn’t be able to feel it, man. Neutral Milk Hotel meant a lot to me when I was 18 but, in the intervening 10 years, their importance in my life—like a lot of us who have spent the 16 years since In the Aeroplane Over the Sea waiting for anything Neutral Milk Hotel-related to actually happen—has lessened. I no longer have that Neutral Milk Hotel poster. I haven’t defined others in relation to how they feel about On Avery Island since I was at least 22 years old. And earlier this year I was publicly admonished by friends for writing an article where I chose to see Kacey Musgraves instead of Neutral Milk Hotel when they played the same night in Madison, Wisconsin. I thought I’d be able to maintain my practiced mask of skepticism (“Indie rock is dead,” I’ve said something like 45 times this weekend), but that vaporized as soon as I was screaming along to “King of Carrot Flowers Pt. One” with thousands of people, all of us reliving—or currently living—our late teen years and early twenties.
Being in the midst of people who could sing every part of “Song Against Sex” makes you realize that the pressure Mangum felt after releasing In the Aeroplane Over the Sea wasn’t just in his head: He was an indie rock deity. He defined being a teen, or a confused twentysomething, for so many people in the audience that it must have been easy to feel like there was no way he could live up to their standards. His need to go into hiding and refuse offers to tour and record was finally understandable at Pitchfork Festival. People screamed “I love you Jeff” after all of the less than 50 words of banter he said into the microphone. If the cost of getting Mangum back on the road is that he refuses to allow himself to be filmed and projected on the jumbotrons surrounding the stage—which was probably unchill for the people way in the back—and he asks the audience to not take any footage or photos of him at all, turning everyone into the cellphone photography police (though watching people get mob rule admonished for ignoring the request was a fun sideshow of the set), then so be it. Neutral Milk Hotel have spent their 16-year hiatus going from indie upstarts to an elusive mystery to the kings of Pitchfork-approved indie rock. Last night they finally took over their kingdom.
I Will Bury You in Time
King of Carrot Flowers Pt. One
King of Carrot Flowers Pts. Two & Three
Ferris Wheel on Fire
In the Aeroplane Over the Sea
Gardenhead/Leave Me Alone
Song Against Sex
Snow Song Pt. 1
Two-Headed Boy Pt. Two
Andrew is still emotionally reeling from Neutral Milk Hotel's Pitchfork set. He's on Twitter - @thestorfer.
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