It is mighty difficult for an artist to still be shrouded in mystique in this day and age, yet frontman Jeff Mangum and his band Neutral Milk Hotel from Athens, Georgia have managed to sustain it. The avid fan base has only grown since the band’s 1998 masterpiece In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, heralded by some music journalists as the best album of the 1990s. It is incredible to think that the band only produced 2 full-length albums and an EP, yet have managed to accrue the sort of fans and praise that most bands only dream of. These fans fully believed Neutral Milk Hotel would never play again. Yet here we are at Postbahnhof, 15 years after Mangum decided to suddenly call it quits.
Once the myriad of instruments – accordions, a flugelhorn and singing saws, among many others – were brought to the stage, it was clear that the experience would be one for the ages. Mangum, now 42, appeared on stage looking just like the recluse he is rumored to be with his unkempt beard and tattered attire, and chose to stay on the right edge of the stage.
During one of the quiet moments in-between songs an enthusiastic audience member screamed “holy shit!,” expressing just what we all were feeling. The years out of the limelight did not make Mangum and his crew seem more distant or slick on-stage; the music still felt as exciting, homespun, and relevant as ever. Sure, they only played old tracks, but how can anyone complain when their material is so good and fulfilling.
The show was exhilaratingly versatile: when the band was on stage the music was theatrical and sprawling and when Mangum was left alone, such as on the beautiful Oh, Comely, it was as intimate and resonant as if he were singing just to you. Neutral Milk Hotel’s blend of folky-artisan-carnivalesque music seemed incredibly inventive and exciting when it debuted, setting the stage for bands like Beirut and Arcade Fire. After tonight’s show it is safe to say the NMH magic is still there.
Let’s just hope we don’t have to wait 15 more years to see the troupe again.
Review by Eli Lewy