In an episode of the NBC comedy Parks & Recreation, Pawnee, Indiana’s own aspiring mogul Tom Haverford presents the Parks Department his plan for a new game show. Called Know Your Boo!, the game is basically The Dating Game, he admits (though, in his defense, Tom does intend to add in a barking CGI puppy co-host named Bobby the Boo). Couples answer questions and compare responses to see how well they “know their boo.”
Tom’s first question for the contestants is “What rock star would your lady bang if she could bang one rock star?” and Andy, lead singer and guitarist of Mouse Rat, declares the question “almost too easy,” assuming his girlfriend, April, must’ve selected him. When she reveals her choice, Jeff Mangum, Andy is puzzled and asks, “Who is Jeff Mangum?”
April’s response? “The guy from Neutral Milk Hotel. That’s my favorite band, I’ve told you, like, a thousand times.”
This scene alone prompted me to start watching Parks & Rec, which should clue you in on just how much power even a simple mention of Neutral Milk Hotel has over me.
Anyone who listens to a certain kind of music is bound to have an affinity for, or at least ought to recognize the importance of, Neutral Milk Hotel. The band’s 1998 album, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, has received near-universal acclaim. Sonically, it paved the way for much of what today dominates the soundscape of the genre loosely referred to as indie rock (whatever that means in this day and age).
So yes, it is influential and lauded, but more than that, the album and its creator have achieved a mythical sort of status. Jeff Mangum, “the guy from Neutral Milk Hotel” as April describes him, disappeared from the spotlight, save a few appearances over the years. Legends and tall tales circulated: Mangum became obsessed with the impending doom of Y2K, said some. Occasionally Mangum would resurface, like at an impromptu Occupy Wall Street concert, but interviews were few and far between. The genius behind Aeroplane had all but vanished.
Until recently, that is. Over the past few years, Mangum played a number of solo shows, and last year, Neutral Milk Hotel reunited for a series of tour dates which will continue into the summer festival season this year.
Last night, I saw the first of Neutral Milk Hotel’s two sold-out nights at Chicago’s Riviera Theatre. Due to Mangum’s reclusion, it was a concert I never expected to see, and it was more impressive than I ever could’ve imagined.
I first heard read about Neutral Milk Hotel around the time of the album’s reissue. I was in high school, and I knew that the album had been bestowed a coveted 10.0 from Pitchfork (which, of course, fed into the larger mythology of the album, as so few albums had been awarded the 10.0 distinction), and I knew that some of my favorites artists routinely cited the album as a major influence. Though I first discovered the album around the same time those bands released their own seminal records (for instance, the Arcade Fire), the songs felt wholly different than anything I’d heard before. In extolling to virtues of the album to friends, I too perpetuated the myth of Jeff Mangum and Neutral Milk Hotel. In 2012, while visiting Athens, Georgia, the city that the Elephant 6 collective called home, I picked up a vinyl copy of the record—a pilgrimage of sorts.
Last night, as Neutral Milk Hotel’s set began, Mangum appeared, alone on the stage, no band in sight. He strummed his guitar and sang alone, and the massive, dilapidated venue was utterly silent; it felt like a violation, an interruption, to be witnessing this.
“Two-Headed Boy” gave way to “The Fool” as the rest of the band and a number of multi-instrumentalists appeared. “The King of Carrot Flowers, Pt. 1” bled into “The King of Carrot Flowers, Pts. 2 & 3,” and a chorus of voices joined with Mangum’s. “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea” was next, its sheer exuberance (“let us lay in the sun and count every beautiful thing we can see”) in defiant contrast of the previous track’s frenzy. During the encore, the band left the stage again, and Mangum was again illuminated by an overhead spotlight, concluding the show with “Two-Headed Boy, Pt. 2.”
The entire evening was paradoxical. Aeroplane is an album that was and is critically beloved, but never appeared on a Billboard chart or gave rise to any singles—though, interestingly, it is annually one of the most purchased vinyl records. Sixteen years after its initial release, Aeroplane had prompted a sold-out tour and secured Neutral Milk Hotel headlining slots at music festivals across the globe. The show itself was introspective revelry—wistful but celebratory.
The show was a communal event, but all the while, it felt deeply personal and individual. In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is the kind of album that begs to be played in a bedroom on a record player or through headphones, but its instrumentation is so triumphant and full of life. Band members play trumpets and accordions and toy saxophones and even saws. It was referenced on a network comedy show and inspired by, of all things, The Diary of Anne Frank. It is authentic and ramshackle and unapologetic.
And when Mangum proclaimed, “How strange it is to be anything at all,” it was impossible not to delight in the observation.