There were a lot of ghosts onstage at the Jeff Mangum show. Stories of the dead weave in and out of his lyrics but the ghosts of the rest of Neutral Milk Hotel also rested heavy onstage. The night was full of beautiful, heart-crushing songs but was ultimately bittersweet.
The Vogue Theatre was packed with adoring fans eager to experience Mangum’s first official tour since the breakup of Neutral Milk Hotel in 1998. The support act was Aaron Mullan from the Tall Firs. He introduced himself enigmatically as only Aaron and proceeded to play an acoustic instrumental set. He told us that this was the first time he played an instrumental set to an audience bigger than his fifteen month-old son. There was a definite pretty, lullaby quality to the music. He also informed us that there were in fact lyrics to his songs, he was just choosing not to sing them. This was a bold move as immediately audience members started begging him to sing. Mullan made a good point that he would leave the lyrics to Mangum. The crowd were appreciative but you could tell everyone just wanted to see Mangum.
Mangum came on late and from the start seemed distressed. He opened with Two Headed Boy and the crowd almost drowned him out singing along. He encouraged this for the whole show. He has almost reached cult figure status and seemed to be basking in the love the audience were showing for him and his music. Mangum let everyone know he had been having a hard, emotional day. He dedicated one of his songs to his friend and their family. Obviously a personal matter was weighing heavily on him. The audience were highly supportive though and he went on to give a brilliant show. He played “Gardenhead”, “Holland”, “1945” and “Little Birds” with such emotional intensity you would think these songs were freshly written. That is the curious thing about Mangum’s show – he performs no new material at all. Everything is from Neutral Milk Hotel’s two albums On Avery Island and In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. You would think he would be tired of performing these songs he wrote in the nineties, even if his fans are not tired of hearing them. He cuts a slightly tragic figure sitting alone on stage. The rest of the band has moved on but he still seems completely absorbed in the world of these two albums.
Someone from the crowd asked him when he would be releasing new work. Mangum mumbled that there was something beautiful about reaching your emotional zenith and just being done. Maybe I should not view him as tragic at all. Plenty of artists continue to release music long after they have reached their artistic peak. At least nothing can spoil the perfect back catalog of Neutral Milk Hotel. And Mangum’s songs are perfect in their own way. He described them as being about the kaleidoscopic feelings you can have for different people in your life. The show felt like a kaleidoscopic journey itself. There are no truly linear stories in his songs but that just reflects the messy nature of life. He weaves in stories of Anne Frank, old friends, abusive families and first sexual experiences, sometimes into the one song.
His live show gives his fans exactly what they want. He played nearly every track from In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. He even played “King of Carrot Flowers” Pt One and Pts Two and Three back to back. He also played “Naomi”, “Ghost” and a hauntingly beautiful version of “Oh, Comely”. The night was full of uplifting moments. The crowd singing as one “And one day we will die / And our ashes will fly from the aeroplane over the sea / But for now we are young / Let us lay in the sun / And count every beautiful thing we can see”. Mangum looked emotionally wrecked after his last song and wordlessly left the stage. A deafening call for an encore started up and Mangum returned to play “Engine”. The night was only a little bittersweet as it made you realize how truly great another Jeff Mangum album could be. We will just have to be content that he is still willing to play us these songs.