Friday, December 4, 2009

Neutral Milk Hotel and the Musical Genius of Jeff Mangum

Thanks to a YouTube member called goldenpuppy1, a number of videos from a 1998 Neutral Milk Hotel concert at the Knitting Factory in New York City have been popping up. This footage is surprisingly clear in terms of picture quality, and more importantly, the audio is rather crisp, all things considered. This recent resurgence of NMH material gives me the perfect excuse to muse about Jeff Mangum and his incredible band.

Although NMH did have a debut album entitled On Avery Island, it is almost completely overshadowed by their sophomore and final (more on that later) release, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. Conceived as a response to recurring dreams that lead singer Jeff Mangum had after reading the The Diary of Anne Frank, In the Aeroplane... is comprised of songs written in a sort of emotional purging process, a kind of outpouring of passion that Mangum felt he needed to do in order to come to terms with these dreams. What resulted was what is often considered the greatest indie album of all time.

Featuring trumpet, strings, and a musical saw, along with Mangum's guitar and distinct vocals, the album creates this eerie, yet uplifting atmosphere and thereby evokes a sensation in me unlike any other piece of music has ever done (yes, even Radiohead). The quality of Jeff Mangum's vocals are so rough and probably borderline cacophonous to some, but what Mangum lacks in prettiness, he more than makes up for with his unadulterated emotional and impassioned wails. Even in his live performance, as illustrated in the video of "Oh, Comely" embedded below, one can see in his eyes the almost possessed state he goes into as he completely immerses himself in the music and the places and memories and feelings it evokes within him. Not many performers in this day and age put this much of their heart and soul into their work, but Jeff Mangum is the exception—and it shows in the quality of the music.

Now, the story of Neutral Milk Hotel after In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is a bit hazy and a lot mysterious. After releasing the album and gaining such notoriety for it, Mangum began to turned even further inward than this introverted personality already induced. The band split up, and Mangum more or less disappeared. Reportedly, he is effectively homeless, moving from one friend's house to the next and sleeping on couch after couch. He's shown up unannounced at a few shows once in a blue moon to play one song and then promptly disappear again. He's not signed to a label. He's doesn't put out any solo material other than an odd field recording mix of Bulgarian folk music and a live solo recording that was likely just orchestrated by the record company to cash in on bootlegs that they saw were grabbing top dollar on eBay. The only piece of music that exists post-Aeroplane is a bootleg from an acoustic solo performance at the birthday party of a friend named Chris Bilheimer. He's just this enigmatic musical genius who graced us with his brilliance for a decade-long span from 1991 to 2001. Who knows if we'll ever hear from him again, but at least we have his wonderful music to relive his unique gifts whenever we so please...

Jeff Mangum: "Little Birds"

Above: A screenshot from Jeff Mangum's performance of "Little Birds."

Some further reading about Jeff Mangum
All are great reads if you have the time; Mangum really is one of those once-in-a-lifetime minds whose mystifying story only adds to his allure.


Anonymous said...

"Reportedly, he is effectively homeless, moving from one friend's house to the next and sleeping on couch after couch." blah, blah, blah. this is so tired and old and shows you have not a clue. did you get this info from the copy of the "incorrect" Puncture magazine article that is probably kept in a plastic protective cover?

Anonymous said...

another nice post. the anticipation right now for new mangum material is hitting a fever pitch, with him showing up playing ENGINE last year to his newly recorded cover on the STROKE cd.

Good GOD what a miracle a new record from him would be.

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