By: Max Burke
For many of you closer to my age (early 20’s), the name Jeff Mangum might not mean much to you. In fact, many of you may not have heard of him—his former band Neutral Milk Hotel last released an album in 1998. So why, you might wonder, is the name Jeff Mangum featured so prominently on the Coachella lineup (second-boldest font possible)? Well there is good reason for this. In the world of indie-rock music, and specifically 1990s indie-music, Jeff Mangum is somewhat of a deity. Much like a deity, he (a) helped create something profound—In the Aeroplane Over the Sea—that is worshiped by listeners and fellow musicians alike (Win Butler of Arcade Fire cites Aeroplane as a prominent reason why his band signed with the same independent label, Merge Records), and he (b) epitomizes the word elusive (neither he nor his band have toured in over a decade and he doesn’t do interviews). To further the analogy, Coachella and the other venues Mangum will visit will become the churches and temples at which his giddy followers can congregate.
So what makes Neutral Milk Hotel’s sound so special? It is difficult, and maybe unfair, for a young listener like myself to answer such a question because I cannot fully comprehended the musical and cultural contexts in which On Avery Island and Aeroplane were released. I was probably still playing freeze-tag when NMH’s last album hit the stores. But maybe that is a part of what makes their music, and Aeroplane in particular, so good: it transcends time and place. People of any generation can connect with music grounded by melodic acoustic-guitar strumming and sung with folk-tinged passion. The verse ‘Soft silly music is meaningful magical’ from “Oh Comely” serves as an apt description of what is going on here. The lyrics can be bizarre (‘The communist daughter/Standing on the sea-weed water/Semen stains the mountain tops’) and some of sounds and noises are unexplainable (that crackly-rain noise in the middle of “Someone is Waiting”). Yet it all feels appropriate, even profound.
The two albums only get better with each successive listen, much like The Big Lebowski and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind are better the third time around than they were the first. Listeners/viewers begin to pick up on previously overlooked nuances and meanings. In Aeroplane, you start to notice the references to Anne Frank—Mangum has acknowledged that her tragic story had an impact on his music. Jack and I have deemed these types of albums “growers”. An album’s ability to grow on its listener and remain in his or her consciousness is a great measurement of its worth.
If this sounds at all a bit cultish, well…that’s because it is. Consider me a follower. I am absolutely thrilled to see Mangum belt out “I love you Jesus Chariiiist!” (“The King of Carrot Flowers, Pts. 2&3”) as the sun sets in the California desert. It should be noted that he will not be playing with the full band. Instead, it will just be him, his guitar and a microphone—only adding to the cultishness of it all. In preparation, watch and listen to the videos and make sure to check back for Jack’s review of the Jeff Mangum concert he just attended in Chicago.