That Neutral Milk Hotel sold every ticket to tonight’s show at 48 hours’ notice shouldn’t come as a surprise.
Before it was cancelled midweek, ATP’s Jabberwocky Festival was going to be the band’s triumphant return to the UK. Songwriter and ringleader Jeff Mangum broke the near-complete silence a couple of years ago by embarking on a solo tour, but full-band shows in London and Manchester last year could not sate the appetite for his work. So, here we are again, and anticipation is just as high.
‘In The Aeroplane Over The Sea’, the band’s second and final album, has outgrown its cult background and become as essential to a new generation of blog-readers as it was to the college kids who first gave it airtime.
All of which leaves Mangum here, in a sweaty old theatre, facing 2,000 people who, mostly, know the inner workings of everything he did in 1998 back-to-front – the Anne Frank obsession, the Elephant 6 collective – but know almost nothing about anything he’s done since.
When he walks on stage alone, with his beard halfway down his torso and a stained hat pulled over his eyes, he bursts into ‘I Will Bury You In Time’, a track only recognised from bootlegs. It’s the introduction people perversely expect after so long: exuberant but slightly unfamiliar.
And then, with the band assembled around him, in the same detached tone that he said it on record, there’s the “two, one, two, three, four” of ‘Holland, 1945’ and everything begins to move. Julian Koster spins around with a bass in his hands and a court jester smile on his face while Mangum dives into every corner of ‘Aeroplane’’s centrepiece. It was always a wild celebration that soundtracked his sorrowful, death-obsessed thoughts and here, with everyone losing their shit, the effect is as vivid as ever.
Mangum’s voice has lost nothing. It remains as free and unaffected as it was on all those bootlegs, when it pierced the static and audience chatter. It’s joyous and mournful all at once, and he races it through each line as if rushing to a new epiphany. ‘The King Of Carrot Flowers’ showcases it perfectly, pulling him up from his modest introduction and leaving him so high that he praises a God he’s not sure he believes in.
Just as impressive is the ease with which early material slots in with the obvious choices from ‘Aeroplane’: ‘Gardenhead’ is sped up to a frantic trip, ‘Where You’ll Find Me Now’ is smoothed out. ‘Naomi’ remains as beautiful and conflicted as it was on ‘On Avery Island’, too, not giving into the building clatter around it.
Mangum can pull on every hat and play every part, gently creeping into dark images before swearing revenge on all seven minutes of the gorgeous ‘Oh Comely’, or leading the funeral procession through ‘The Fool’ with horns blaring. And when it all comes to a head for an encore, ‘Two-Headed Boy, Part Two’ seems to be a fitting closer – Mangum alone again, piecing it all together, talking about God and radio wires.
It’s ‘Engine’ that the band closes with, though, a happy tune that Mangum wrote from the depths of despair pre-‘Aeroplane’, a song about “rolling on through endless revisions”. Koster’s musical saw sits above it and the band rally round with revisions of their own, turning that funeral march into something to live by.
When Koster thanks the crowd and says that the band probably won’t be coming back to London again soon, it’s clear that this victory lap is coming to a close and that this is probably it. Having spent a career trying to articulate goodbyes, though, Neutral Milk Hotel say them beautifully.
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Words: Alex Robert Ross