TBTS Reviews: Jeff Mangum, live at the State Theatre, Minneapolis, February 4, 2012
Before he played “Little Birds” on a Minneapolis stage last Saturday night, Jeff Mangum said something like, “It was very difficult for this song to come out of me, but it did.”
That sentiment reinforced an impression I’ve always had about Mangum’s band, Neutral Milk Hotel, and their essential album, 1998’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. Before I had the great fortune to see Jeff Mangum at Minneapolis’ State Theatre last weekend, I’d pretty much always heard his songs as bristly, feverish documents of both alienation and its natural outgrowth—a white-hot, often unfulfilled longing for connection. However, though my experience of this weekend’s show was certainly colored by the intensely personal feelings that Aeroplane has always conjured, so much else from the evening served to turn my assumptions on their head.
There have always been, and will always be, musical passages and turns of phrase on Aeroplane that make me nearly choke on the emotions and memories called up. I am still rendered speechless by evocative lyrics such as “Two headed boy, there’s no reason to grieve, the world that you need is wrapped in gold, silver sleeves, left beneath Christmas trees in the snow.” Over the years, the record’s numerous, alternately mournful and celebratory bits about fathers and mothers, sisters and brothers, friends and family have helped me to see my own kin more clearly and, I hope, more sympathetically. In terms of Aeroplane’s music and instrumentation, I still raise my arms to the skies when “Two Headed Boy” gives way to the brass-and-stomp coda of “The Fool.” That moment is topped for me only by the sustained drama of “Oh Comely,” an 8-minute epic that concludes with Mangum’s keening voice melodically merging with lonely horns, just after his devastating final verse about two people in their final moments of (horrific) death, their souls freed to fly away together to a land of “sun and spring and green forever.”
Because of these and other standout moments, through many years and in many moments of great need, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea has been both a comforting friend and a reliable means of achieving needed catharsis. It was also something that I just couldn’t imagine enjoying in the company of others. However, for me and, I’m guessing, for most of the crowd at the State Theatre (and other recent venues), the show was an overwhelmingly positive experience of sharing connection rather than mourning its absence or loss. Mangum indicated that he was finding the performer’s version of that meaning in his current tour, saying that it’s been gratifying for him to see the faces, hear the voices, and connect to the energy of thousands of fans.
For a man with a long history*** of choosing withdrawal over engagement—a tendency I understand and sometimes mirror—finding the ability to once again expend so much energy, night after night, in delivering his holy messages to those who love him is an admirable achievement. Through his art, Mangum had already done more for the world than most do in their lifetimes, but I, like so many others, am grateful that he is once again able to give of himself and his monumental talent. I don’t begrudge his time away, but I’m glad he’s back.
And what is it that he’s giving exactly? Perhaps nothing more than a nostalgic trip down memory lane for some. For a few, a direct confrontation with a nearly divine mythical being. For many of us, something in between—a deeply felt, note-perfect rendering of once-shocking, still-visceral songs that have over time become woven into our emotional understanding of self. More than anything, I think this tour, Mangum’s first full step into the public world in more than a decade, will soon be seen as the moment when he gave his old songs to us, Neutral Milk Hotel’s collective fandom, to own and hear and redefine as we see fit in the future. For me, because of the strength and grace of Mangum’s performance, and because the show also provided the occasion for me to reunite with two dear friends who now live far away, I think from now on I’ll primarily hear Aeroplane as a determined celebration, a triumph over isolation, a record of hope stubbornly clung to.
And maybe, just maybe, we will all one day hear Aeroplane as the final album of just the first phase of Jeff Mangum’s recorded output. Both his busy schedule and the performance prowess I saw on Saturday—his singing and playing were remarkably tight and robust—make me think that Jeff Mangum may be writing the end of his artistic life’s “Aeroplane chapter” and getting ready to start another one. As long as it’s a good thing for Jeff’s health, I pray I’m right about that, because I’m guessing that anything he has to say is something we’d all do well to hear.
***Fans of Neutral Milk Hotel, long-form personal journalism, or both should read this powerful 2003 article by Kevin Griffis. It’s insightful, moving, and beautifully written.