Jeff Mangum. Photo: Corey Greenwell
This is an impossible task—how can one transcribe such pretty stories of love, cut deep with terrible scenes of sex and death, of quiet contemplations in memory, of grief and guilt and the biological markings of intimacy—semen stains, fleshy fingers in mouths or along the notches of one’s spine—or of the quiet sadness after grotesque tragedies in war, of flowers cut down in bloom—a little girl’s immortalization in a diary, a little boy’s eyes filled with flies. Of letting the lilies in ‘round your head die so that they’ll blossom again, apart from you. And all this viewed flying high above from far away singing stars and the time machines of carnivalesque lyricism. If you’ve listened to In the Aeroplane Over the Sea for longer than the first of Jeff Mangum’s pitchy tunes, you may know what I’m prattling about. This was an event that I never thought was going to happen, and it stole upon us so with a blistering purity.
Aeroplane is a sacred album for so many people––it’s easily understood why. Neutral Milk Hotel’s story has long ago been folded into the tapestry of indie rock legend––a songwriter with a burning vocabulary makes one beautifully haunting collection of song and memory that’s instantly called perfection, then recluses himself and dissociates from its fame, perhaps crushed with the silly fear of never writing anything one-hundredth as good. Mangum is genius-headed; his lyrical world is a recorded kaleidoscope of grotesques replete with (my favorite images of his) semen-stained mountaintops, rings of flowers, pianos filled with flames, empty rings around the sun, powerful pistons and sugary sweet machines, cars careening through the clouds (“Communist Daughter” and “Oh Comely” are particularly intense). Writing about Jeff Mangum’s music is an unholy impossible task, but one worth its risks. It speaks to our childhoods; how we’re all eventually plucked from bloom by insane conflicts––WWII, heartbreak, death––towards our brightest moments and our deepest fears. It’s an album that questions humanity’s most profound mysteries––(“How strange it is to be anything at all”), that mystifies the human function of memory, both an individual’s and a society’s, that believes in the power of art to atone for humanity’s gravest mistakes, and, with a grotesquely fantastic assemblage of biology and carnal language, attempts such atonement.
That album, one of my dearest friends in high school, has had a profound affect on my life, as it has on many others I’m sure. It’s the reason I became interested in words. It was the first experience I had with a transgressive weirdness that defies complacency (that I’ve since sought out in literature––see Genet, Bataille, Mishima). I was in high school, in my parent’s basement, my teenage thoughts spinning ‘round as my records, when I embraced this strangeness, my difference, with an intense yearning for naivety rather than deadening adulthood. That was my dream––to be as beautiful and strange as Jeff Mangum and hide from the vulgar world––and to write anything one-hundredth as lyrical as he did on that album or to experience anything half as pretty. Now, at twenty-two, this performance and this review is my opportunity to crush my insecurity. This is my love song to music and language, my celebration of being confident and playful with words, to loving for the first time, and finally losing the fear of living. This is the effect of Neutral Milk Hotel––there is no return from this gorgeous, dream-filled world.
These are the thoughts shoved awkwardly in my head as I went to see Jeff Mangum perform for the first and likely last time in Salt Lake City. I had chosen to let go of any expectations so only to be overwhelmingly enchanted, but they crept in anyway––it was really never supposed to happen. The only other time I’ve been at The Depot was to see Metric (another of my favorite high school bands) last fall. The Depot is streamlined for high-profile alternative acts and caters to Gen-Xers and their fellows in my generation eager to do adult things. So they try to maintain an intimate club setting, but it feels like a prefab box theater rather than a music venue. I’d like to use this platform and the momentum of passion for musical expression up to this point to challenge the evening’s host, The Depot. You destroy the insignificant atmosphere you aggressively achieve with your petty rules and zealous guard dogs. It was worth getting drunk on your overpriced liquor to lessen the stress of constantly being shuffled around the wrong places to stand––or at least my burgeoning adulthood told me so.
The actual performance was rather plain. Tall Firs played a quiet and reverent opening set. Mangum, looking like a recluse, with his bushy beard and long hair tucked under a patrol cap, walked humbly onto the stage and sat down next to four acoustic guitars on a simple black chair. After picking one up, almost impulsively he strummed the quick chords of “Holland, 1945,” then followed straightaway with “Two-Headed Boy Part 2.” It happened so quickly––those were songs that can be sung hundreds of times at the top of one’s lungs through an adolescence and even by slowing down for the crowd to sing along, everything felt so fast. My expectations became apparent now––but better to be a spent firework than none at all. That special Neutral Milk Hotel is gone—there were no walls of distortion, no drums or percussion, strings, bagpipes, organ grinding or trumpet flourishes. Just Jeff, at forty-two, an acoustic guitar and that voice. And those moments that I feel such a vivid connection to are gone, too. Only these words.
He left out the second verse of that latter song (“Blister please with those wings in your spine…”). I’m not sure why––it’s a perfectly pretty verse. But not as pretty as the third, cariño: “In my dreams you’re alive and you’re crying, as your mouth moves in mine soft and sweet, rings of flowers ‘round your eyes and I’ll love you for the rest of your life when you’re ready.” It’s the finale of Aeroplane, the coda to this love story, Mangum’s and mine; this was an impossible task, I told you. He pllayed two songs from NMH’s first album, On Avery Island, “Gardenhead” and “A Baby For Pree,” then the Aeroplane B-side “Engine.” Mangum had to stop in between songs to ask the venue to respect his only request––no photography or video recording; they plastered his image on video screens all across the room.
The audience was amazingly reverent and celebratory. Many sang along, fewer danced, though I’m sure many people’s heads were as bundled into knots as mine (or at least I hope so). Then “King of Carrot Flowers Part 1” and “Part 2 & 3.” A friend of Mangum’s (I didn’t catch her name) joined him for company and a cello on “Oh Comely” and “Two-Headed Boy Part 1.” Behind “King of Carrot Flowers” and those two are some of Mangum’s most vivid imagery; we all sang that beautiful line, “catching signals that sound in the dark....” Then the prettiest love song, “Naomi,” written for the then girlfriend, Galaxie 500’s Naomi Yang. Mangum ended this with a happy performance of “Ghost,” that one track that always sneaks up near the end of that album and puts a smile on one’s face. And that was all.
Indeed the encore was “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea.” “What a curious life we have found here tonight…” The crowd was bliss; Mangum’s voice––ours. I never thought I would be in a room with Jeff Mangum, never thought I’d have found such a beautiful face to share it with. We are dreaming now of the next place we’ll visit, that album we’ll want to repeat endlessly, that next novel we’ll read, or perhaps write, the lover we’ll meet again in the clouds; will there be anything one-hundredth as pretty?“But for now we are young let us lay in the sun and count every beautiful thing we can see.”