What We’re Listening To (Summer 2014): Neutral Milk Hotel

ww_banner_listenIn this series of summer posts, MG staffer Kelly Nhan will be exploring books and music, festivals and goings-on, anything and everything Midwestern-related, and reporting her findings.


Wednesday, July 16, marked the second coming of Jeff Mangum for a thousand Neutral Milk Hotel fans at The Crofoot Ballroom in Pontiac, Michigan. This divine analogy is only somewhat hyperbolic, considering Mangum has been described as the “Salinger of indie rock” after disappearing out of view shortly after the band’s much-lauded sophomore album, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, was released in 1998. The aura of mystery surrounding the Neutral Milk Hotel frontman and lyricist is owed in equal parts to the band’s strict no-cameras, no-recordings policy, of which the venue’s security guards repeatedly reminded fans waiting eagerly in line two-hours before the doors opened. In fact, most live recordings of the band performing prior to their triumphant return in the way of an expansive global reunion tour consist of bootleg, scratchy videos with the band largely in silhouette, the sketchy sound quality adding more distortion to the band’s distinctive fuzz-folk sound.

Neutral_Milk_HotelAs such, the band’s promotional photographs flashing on screens inside The Crofoot Ballroom pictured the members as they appeared some fifteen years ago, a strange dissonance that soon hit me as I stood waiting for the band to appear during the 45-minute turnover after the rollicking Circulatory System opened. Mangum, his eyes shadowed by the signature newsboy cap atop now-grayed, chin-length hair and heavily bearded, ambled on stage casually following a flurry of stage technicians. The applause and cheers upon his initial appearance were somewhat subdued, given that most of the crowd had no idea what Mangum looked like a decade and a half after his last appearance with the band. Without a word, Mangum, alone on the stage, launched into the acoustic “I Will Bury You In Time”, which then melted into an almost-uninterrupted stream of hits off Aeroplane. The audience members (whose average age would be somewhere around eight years old at the time of the album’s release) sang along to almost every song without pause together with Mangum’s pinched, yet resonant, voice, a testament, perhaps, to the album’s enduring affective impact on listeners, many of whom shed tears during the emotionally resonant and melancholy “Two-Headed Boy”.

The band played through their set with very few words edgewise, save for a concise, yet genuinely felt, “thank you” from Mangum with a bow and hands clasped like a prayer, and a similar sentiment expressed by the more talkative Julian Koster who otherwise spoke words of gratitude to the jumping and screaming crowd. The band members were most animated in their visible passion for playing together the songs, despite their dreamlike and illusory imagery, that have touched now-two generations of indie rock listeners. Spillane and Thal sang along with audience members in between their trumpet and french horn solos; Koster, on the bass, accordion, and singing saw, swaying with eyes closed as he played. All of which is to say: the band not only replicated the expansive sound of the eighteen-song set constituting much of the band’s relatively slim discography, they added a new layer of affective longing (evidenced by the raucous cheers peppering the show) and sonic abandon to the mix. Neutral Milk Hotel rose out of the annals of nostalgia and built on their sound as a live band, mirroring the rapturous energy that spilled out of the audience into the performance as the night wore on.

I Will Bury You In Time
Holland, 1945
The King of Carrot Flowers, Pt. 1
The King of Carrot Flowers, Pts. 2 & 3
Ferris Wheel on Fire
Two-Headed Boy
The Fool
In the Aeroplane Over the Sea
Gardenhead / Leave Me Alone
Song Against Sex
Ruby Bulbs
Snow Song, Pt. 1
Oh Comely

Little Birds Ghost
Two-Headed Boy, Pt. 2


Kelly Nhan is a senior studying English and Women’s Studies at the University of Michigan, and originally from Connecticut. She loves finding good coffee places, exploring cities, reading good poetry, and chatting about feminism. She is interested in going into book publishing, or eventually going to grad school to study post-colonial literature and feminist theory.

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