Music News

Reclusive Neutral Milk Hotel Songwriter Steps Back into the Spotlight

So, Jeff Mangum's playing a show here this week.

What just a few years ago seemed like an impossibility (or at least an extreme improbability) is becoming a more common thing — less "Hey, didja read that new Salinger story?" and more "So there's a new Terrence Malick movie coming out" — but still an indie-rock event to note. Mangum's the (still relatively) reclusive songwriter who fronted Neutral Milk Hotel, a band that is associated with the psych-rock collective Elephant 6 and whose two albums from the '90s are cult favorites. He stepped away from live performances in the late '90s, and only occasionally would put in cameo appearances at shows in Athens, Georgia, the fertile scene that greenhoused Neutral Milk Hotel for years, or in New York, where Mangum now lives. But in late 2008, Mangum performed more prominent engagements and stepped back into the public eye — not with new songs, but at least with new shows.

"I guess it did sneak up on me a bit, but I always knew he had another round in him," says Laura Carter, the multi-instrumentalist who often played in Neutral Milk Hotel and other Athens acts, including Elf Power and her own Dixie Blood Mustache. She opened for Mangum on his previous tour, playing in a trio with fellow E6'ers Andrew Rieger (Elf Power) and Scott Spillane (The Gerbils, Neutral Milk Hotel). "I'm with Willie [Nelson]," she says, quoting the Red-Headed Stranger. "'What I love is making music with my friends,' and us three supporting each other in one set was way more fun than taking turns opening with solo shows."

Over the past several years, the fear was that any performance by Jeff Mangum would become an indie-rock sing-along, a mawkish communal get-together full of tearful eyes and an elevation of dude-with-acoustic guitar to something . . . higher. And they have been, but y'know, that was okay. Surprisingly okay.

His latest set of shows comes a decade and a half after the release of In the Aeroplane over the Sea, and over the years his absence from the public eye made the enigma swell — and, sometimes, overflow. Tunes like "Oh Comely," a frequent opener, set the tone of his set, and, at 8 minutes or so, let people mellow into and get comfortable with straightforward yet powerful presentations of his songs.

You'll likely find selfish audience members who feel compelled to shout along to every single word — buddies, we all waited years for this, not just you — but they'll thankfully, eventually, be shushed or drowned out by the power of Mangum's own voice. That voice, too, full of compassion and emotion and more than a little danger on songs like "Holland, 1945" and "Little Birds" is what's best about Mangum's recent performances. And though he's not much for words while on stage, Mangum at least acknowledges the fact that his audience loves him and loves his songs, often generously inviting a crowd to sing along with him near a set's end. His shows are simple, and his shows have been mostly great ones.

So why's this show a big deal? Well, for a long time, people couldn't have something and now they can. And maybe there's something about the accessibility of the Internet that wraps a pre-MP3 artist in a little bit of mystery. Sometimes you've just gotta be at a show, y'know? If you're going to this week's Crescent Ballroom gig, note that all recording devices are strictly prohibited, as they have been at all of Mangum's shows. Show up and you'll have a dude, a guitar, some killer songs, and that affecting voice.

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Chris Hassiotis