God! Sex! Death! Reincarnation! Paying $45 for a ticket only to wait in arctic conditions!
These were the themes of the night for some 1,500 people Tuesda night at Webster Hall. They were paying their pound of flesh–braving the elements, though New Yorkers love nothing more than using inclement weather to stay home–to the grandfathers of obscure horn- and saw-based indie rock, gods-at-large Neutral Milk Hotel.
See also: An Interview With a Girl Who Has a Neutral Milk Hotel Tattoo
You could reproduce any number of the articles written about the band’s second coming with a series of bracketed, bald clichés. Reduced to buzzwords, they look something like this: Salinger-like, Jeff Mangum, profound, inscrutable, [something about a comeback], Anne Frank, rabid fans.This regurgitated liturgical style gives up on the possibility of gleaning anything new from the tight-lipped and camera-shy Mangum–but forgets that Neutral Milk Hotel is a band that’s been defined by its disciples as much as by any of their compact discography.
Standing by the bar at Webster Hall Tuesday night, twenty-something mustachioed Adam, who refused to give his last name (likely out of fear of being outed as a purely casual fan), expressed what came across as pure apathy, tinged with disdain: “I mean, like them, I saw him at Coachella whenever that was. But there were people like, sobbing…. I was like, man, I wish I liked something as much as these people like Jeff Mangum.”
People don’t just like Jeff Mangum; they love him. They idolize him. Many of the people I talked to called him just “Jeff”; for most of the rest, the appellation was simply a singular “he,” no explanation needed [note: he or He?].
What the standard Neutral Milk Hotel live review refuses to communicate effectively is the deeply personal bond many people have with the (or even just Jeff). Outside Webster, attendees waxed poetic about lyricism, the genuine emotion and emotional genuineness, the turbulence of young adulthood. You could populate a small country with the number of people who felt like In the Aeroplane Over the Sea helped them get through high school, or the first year of college, or whatever other time in their life, but maybe that’s the beauty of Neutral Milk Hotel: While the band may have closed itself off from the world, its music was always there, and it was always for everyone, no matter how rough the time. “And don’t you worry now, the world will open up its arms to you,” Mangum sings in an early version of “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea” before veering off into characteristic unintelligibility.
This sort of comforting, universal love is Elephant 6 canon. As bandmate Julian Koster urged in the 33 1/3 book on ITAOTS: “I think what Elephant 6 meant for us is very simple: there’s something pure and infinite in you, that wants to come out of you, and can come out of no other person on the planet…. And that’s what we need: we desperately need you.”
I first heard “In the Aero”–No, no, that’s a lie. I heard “My Dream Girl Don’t Exist.” What happened was, I forget what band I was listening to on YouTube, but like, you know how you’ll find the related videos and stuff? So I saw this and I loved the song title, and I clicked on it and it was all grainy or whatever, from a show recording. And I loved it so much I put it on my Facebook, and I remember like, not a lot of my friends were into that type of music so no one liked it or anything like that. I was thinking about it and I was like, I can’t believe people are passing this by, you know? I wonder if all the other stuff sounds like that. I have an addictive personality so I went online, and yeah.
To tell you the truth, to this day–I saw a book that tries to decipher the meanings to the lyrics and I was going to buy it, but I like not knowing in a way, you know? In the way I can relate–some words I can relate to more than others because I know what they mean to me, you know–sometimes it’s just the mood of the song, or the way he’ll sing something, that just like feels emotional. In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is a pretty depressing record, for me at least. It helped me through stuff.
Becky Bowman, NYU student, formerly of Maryland:
My friends and I performed Aeroplane, like the first three songs, for our high school talent show when we were seniors and it sort of just devolved into a big dance fest, and it was so fun. It was towards the end of our graduation…That cemented it for me. The intro to that album is like, senior year of high school.
My sister gave me the album as a high school graduation present 10 years ago….So the first time I listened to the album I was like, this is super weird, I wasn’t into it, but it’s one of those albums where the more you listen to it it grows on you. It’s funny because she had a really different experience, she listened to the album first with her husband and they were hiking and she told me this story about how they were driving down some highway in, like, the Midwest in Kansas or something really scenically beautiful but not interesting, and how his [Mangum's] voice had just filled this really large space. It’s funny because I didn’t connect to it at all, but now [...] I have gone back and been like, “Thank you,” and now it’s kind of a family thing–I’m actually waiting for my sister here because she’s coming to the show with me.
I was about 12 or 13, which was about 2003–I’m a 90s kid. It was a very emotional listening experience, very different from what was on the radio when I was on the radio. I connected to it more… I think people can just tell when something’s coming from the heart. It bleeds through the music. You can just sense it, you just hear it. You may not understand what it means, necessarily, but you can feel it–understand the pain or anguish or lust or whatever.
Kathryn Herskivitf (there w/ Rebecca Taylor) Herskivitf ):
I was really glad that I got to know it [ITAOS] when I did because it’s so much of an album. One song sort of flows into the next and this day and age, all your listening tends to be just one song and it’s more discrete and not as part of a whole album. That was 1997. I saw them way back in the day, I wanna say at Irving Plaza maybe? Somewhere around these parts and, yeah, I guess pretty close to when he stopped touring altogether.
When we saw him last year, it was, like, this is your one chance…. But we were in Chicago at Lollapalooza when the tickets went on sale, so we were on the L trying to buy tickets. But yeah, they sold out so fast, it was like,
“Two-Headed Boy” is one of my favorite songs of all time and it’s just about these two fetuses floating in a jar, but it’s beautiful. It’s all this beautiful, twisted imagery but it’s gorgeous and I love it.
Right when I got into them I started dating my first girlfriend. And one time I was going home from her house in the snow and I listened to the whole album and that was probably my favorite listen ever.
Bret Hirsch & Lizette Resendez, NYC:
Lizette Resendez: We bought our tickets on August 1st.
Bret Hirsch: 2013.
Resendez: When the date finally rolled around we were like, wait did you buy the tickets, did I buy the tickets? And we had to go through our email and figure out when and who bought them and where do we pick them up, and so it’s nice that the day finally came.
Hirsch: Some good memories when you hear the songs, you know where you were the first time. I think it was Austin, TX. Summertime, lakes, drinking beer. It was good.
Resendez: You think about all the time that’s passed since then–[to Hirsch] you were delivering pizza, right? And we were living in Austin, and since then we’ve lived in San Francisco and he’s an architect and I’m a copywriter. Now we’re living in New York and all this time has passed since then. You listen to the music and you’re like, “Ahh, the simple times.”
I am here because my fiancé thought she bought tickets to last night’s show and she messed up and they were actually for tonight. We’re huge Neutral Milk Hotel fans. We’ve been huge NMH fans for a while… It helped me negotiate a whole druggy phrase that I went through and, like, kinda took me through that. I just did a ton of hallucinogens and that shit, parents getting divorced, problems with my brother, things like that. Just like carried me through. It was the one album I always listened to every time I was tripping or any of that stuff, and it always centered me.
Mendel Rabinovitch (older, not with the other two)
Connor Curfman, student, Houston
Matt Tinkleman, student, from here
Mendel Rabinovitch: I feel like they were the archetype for everything interesting in indie rock that came after that. As a musician, I listened to it and always thought to myself, I don’t think I’ll ever write anything as good as that, but I’m OK with that.
Matt Tinkleman: I feel like it’s kind of soundtracked my life. There are just so many moments I can relate many of the songs to. Whether it’s just like driving around in my car or a kiss, or something like that, I can associate so many moments with so many of the songs.
Connor Curfman: I just think of driving in my car and screaming “I love you, Jesus Christ.”
Rabinovitch: [bursts into song/caterwauling] I LOVE YOU JESUS CHRIST
Curfman: I LOVE YOU… I love doing that. I’ve done that this week, I’ve done it too many times. I think the album is such a good growing album. You listen and you learn more. That’s how it was for me, going all through high school, there’s so much talk about adolescence and all this like, sex stuff in it. In “Oh Comely,” and I don’t know, it’s just one of those albums that it helps define you. That’s a bit much–but it’s true though.
Rabinovitch: I always think back to chemistry class and I think of the mold that was sitting there, in the double-refined spheres of alcohol, and I think of the two-headed boy.