Much ink has spilled in the midst of dissecting the cult popularity of lo-fi alternative band Neutral Milk Hotel. Their 1998 album In the Aeroplane Over the Sea attracts a certain type of voluble, obsessive fan: the kind both appreciative of primary songwriter Jeff Mangum’s abstract lyrics and willing to dive into the frequently uncanny ’60s pop homage of the Elephant 6 Collective.
This Sunday, the Athens band concluded their reunion tour here in Atlanta to throngs of adoring acolytes, and in the process, they sold out two dates at Downtown’s Tabernacle.
Over the last few years, Mangum has slowly crept back into the public eye after remaining silent for most of the preceding decade.
Every scrap of news leading up to the acoustic solo shows he played in 2011 was treated as revelatory by both fans and press, in turn reinforcing the archetypal story of a recluse artist living in the shadow of a single, defining work.
Yet at the Tabernacle, between the shouts of thousands of devoted followers, Mangum seemed at ease with his music and legacy but still wary of the present. On multiple occasions, Mangum asked those in the crowd to refrain from using their cell phones to snap pictures.
From behind a green cap pulled down over his eyes, he expressed his desire to give his love directly to the audience but then acknowledged that documenting concerts is “part of our culture. I’m the weird one.”
Mangum’s guardedness is unsurprising to those who have listened to his music, as Neutral Milk Hotel’s greatest strength is his disarming vulnerability. In an interview released around the time of In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, Mangum discussed his influence: Anne Frank. “I spent about three days crying and just was completely flipped-out. While I was reading the book, she was alive to me […] that’s the thing: You love people because you know their story.” Ironically, this sentiment illustrates the obsession with Mangum as a public figure. Those who grew up with In the Aeroplane Over the Sea want to learn his story, but the album itself is devoid of personal details.
Before I saw Mangum on his solo tour a few years ago, I sought out those personal details. Bloomsbury publishes a series of books called 33 1/3, where each pocket-sized volume discusses a single album. Eighty-six have been released to date.
The Neutral Milk Hotel edition explores the genesis of Elephant 6 and the principals’ path from Louisiana to Denver and finally to Athens. Still, those biographical details only marginally enhanced my understanding of the album. In the Aeroplane Over the Sea has been endlessly scrutinized over the last 10 years.
But maybe we should stop scrutinizing. Maybe we should all just take Mangum’s advice and turn off our cameras.
– By Jordan Francis