Mangum Opus: Neutral Milk Hotel’s Jeff Mangum is the King of Caring Followers

On the surface, Neutral Milk Hotel’s 1998 album In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is a pretty typical record. The subject of the album is love, just like countless other releases. But the object of frontman Jeff Mangum’s affections is a pubescent Jewish girl who spoke to him through her world-famous public diary. Working against the relationship? Her death by genocide in 1945. Mangum is passionately in love with Anne Frank.

The serpent tempts me to pick the low-hanging fruit, which oozes with juicy adjectives like crazy, insane, or deluded, but I’m not convinced. It’s important to reflect on just how easily one’s life can be mutilated by the oppressive forces of subordination, and to highlight the fickleness of perspective in regards to insanity. Do you realize just how easy it is to be classified as insane? A few people working against someone and collaborating on a shared story is plenty to land that person in a psychiatric ward. Unlike in prison, where you appear in court and receive a finite maximum sentence (with many inmates discharged much earlier for good behavior), the stay at a psychiatric hospital is indefinite. It’s like hitting Staples’ easy button for perpetual imprisonment. Of course, you just could tell people it’s all been a mistake and you’re of sound mind, but nothing sounds “crazier” than tormented pleas of sanity. The harder you thrash in quicksand, the deeper you sink. Nellie Bly was a reporter who bluffed her way into a psych ward for a story. She acted normal once inside, but the staff never realized their mistake. “Strange to say, the more sanely I talked and acted, the crazier I was thought to be,” Bly wrote.

Not only am I terrified of this happening to me, but I think that “crazy” is a societal construct. How can you objectively state that what goes on in someone else’s mind is wrong on a universal basis? There’s quite a bit that I disagree with on a personal basis, but I’m not conceited enough to feel like I can competently judge the thoughts of the world around me as sound or unsound. Men who claim to be descended from deities are imprisoned and dismissed today, but at many different times in history, a populace that was either less jaded or more gullible embraced these purported saviors.

But I digress. Mangum once preceded a live song with a cryptic, “I wrote this before things started to change in my head.” While Mangum’s vision may seem loopy, it makes a lot of sense when you venture from the blunt, physical world and into the realm of the abstract- a realm where Mangum presides in. He’s enamored with the idea of Frank, perpetual hope juxtaposed with an untenable situation.

Mangum has become the reclusive muse of music, attracting comparison to wordsmiths like Pynchon and Salinger. His disarming earnestness contrasts with Salinger’s famously divisive narrator Holden Caulfield, apt to label elements of the world he sees as insincere as “phony.” After concluding a tour at the end of 1998, Neutral Milk Hotel split up. Between 1999 and 2010, Mangum played only 7 shows in public; in 6 of them, he performed only 1 song.

Neither In the Aeroplane Over the Sea or On Avery Island, the 1996 debut by Neutral Milk Hotel, achieved commercial success. The lack of access to the mainstream dictates that the music will be unearthed by alternative fans that dig deeper for music than the average person. Because of this, the frontman who epitomizes sincerity draws an audience of hipsters, known for spreading the irony on thick.

Mangum’s lyrics are both meaningful and magical, often sifting through the dirt in the world to extract the golden nuggets. His language about sex is brash but poetic. The song “Oh Comely” contains a verse that tells a foreboding origin story in few words, before describing intercourse through lush prose. At the same time, Mangum uses impressive assonance while each line is syllabically perfect, resting precisely between a simple strumming. 

Your father made fetuses with flesh licking ladies
While you and your mother were asleep in the trailer park
Thunderous sparks from the dark of the stadiums
The music and medicine you needed for comforting
So make all your fat fleshy fingers to moving
And pluck all your silly strings and bend all your notes for me
Soft silly music is meaningful magical
The movements were beautiful all in your ovaries
All of them milking with green fleshy flowers
While powerful pistons were sugary sweet machines

Recently, Mangum has emerged from his sabbatical. He played for Occupy supporters at NYC’s Zuccotti Park in 2011, and at popular music festival Coachella in 2012. He toured throughout the first half of 2012, crossing the country and journeying to England and Spain. A fantastic NPR article reports that demand for the show was insatiable:

“ the thousand or so tickets for Mangum’s two Baltimore dates sold out in 18 minutes. Makes sense: reclusive artist, limited tour dates, high demand. Of course, some people were bound to buy tickets just to flip them for exorbitant amounts of money. Rumor had it that tickets for previous shows on the tour had re-sold for more than 10 times their face value, up to $300 apiece.

“Easily,” (show promoter Todd) Lesser says. “And I’ve also heard of the extreme cases, where people are paying into the four figures for tickets.”

But there would be no ticket scalping on Lesser’s watch. Working with Mangum’s booking agency, Lesser instituted a policy that IDs would be checked at the door, and that they had to match the name of the purchaser. If you bought two — the maximum you could buy — you had to give the name of your guest.”

Mangum brings both music and mystique to a live show, the rare chance to see an artist that shuns the spotlight. Just when it seemed like Mangum was at last embracing his fame, he announced on his website that he was playing one last acoustic tour, “giving him the chance to play to all the silver citizens dwelling in citys (sic) that he has yet to sing in.” The final tour began in January, and wraps up in February of 2013.

The knowledge that this may be Mangum’s swan song inspired me to shell out $40 to attend his show in Cleveland. As a spendthrift, the financial blow was cushioned by the exorbitant sums others are apparently paying, and the perspective that seeing a reclusive savant will be more valuable in the future than placing a few extra calls to Papa John’s.

On January 11th, a horde of hipsters descended upon Euclid Ave., clad in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles jackets and ugly sweaters, many realizing something that, for many years, was only a dream. My research on the ID requirement was in vain; upon flashing my teenaged driver’s license, security assumed I was making an audacious attempt to get alcohol. The best outfit of the night wasn’t even intentionally funny, but a man adorned in a Ryan Gosling scorpion jacket from Drive that was more cosplay than cool.

Thousands saw Mangum enter stage right and sit on a minimalist stage, bare besides a chair, mic, bottled water, and 4 guitars. He sported a full beard that could shame a mountain trapper, jarring when compared to the clean-shaven mug only accessible to the world in pixelized form. His aesthetic may have been foreign, but his voice unmistakable. He played mostly hits, along with one unreleased song.

I scrutinized his demeanor due to his hermitic reputation; Mangum is undeniably uncomfortable as a showman. The crowd was reverential, silent until Mangum assured the audience that it was OK to sing along. He seemed genuinely surprised at the turnout, at one point remarking that he was unaware that so many people listened to his work.

One seminal image still burned into my mind occurred when Mangum played “Holland, 1945.” The song, embedded below, is one of Neutral Milk Hotel’s most accessible and upbeat compositions. From the balcony, I spotted two women dancing with each other at the back of the floor, whirling in uninhibited ecstasy, rejoicing, their bodies as much of an instrument as Mangum’s cords and chords.

As I left the auditorium, I overheard one fan say, “Now I can die happy.”


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