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We’ll Wait For Our Miracles: Neutral Milk Hotel’s Shifting Mythology

on May 01, 2013, 12:01am

neutral milk feature

I was listening to Neutral Milk Hotel the first time I felt anything like transcendence. It was three o’clock on a Monday morning; I was ignoring homework and cocooning myself in the band’s ’96 bootleg “Live at the Aquarius.” Jeff Mangum played that show solo, testing out songs that would later appear on his seminal album In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. Unlike many of the live recordings that started to litter P2P networks in the early aughts, “Aquarius” sounds warm, quiet, and clear. The room is silent save for Mangum and his acoustic guitar. There’s no stray chatter to mar the sound of his brassy vocals on tape.

It was “Rubby Bulbs”, one of hundreds of songs that Neutral Milk Hotel never committed to a proper release, that sent me over. Mangum holds one note for 12 seconds halfway through. It sounds like he’ll never run out of air. I remember looking at the ceiling, exhausted and 15, feeling the boundary between me and everything that wasn’t me dissolve.

Loving Neutral Milk Hotel in high school was like being in a secret society. We passed CD-Rs marked up in Sharpie to our friends, whispering that there was something special locked inside. We played Mangum’s songs on starter-pack guitars, amazed at how much power could come from a handful of open chords. We quoted lyrics to each other like pass phrases: “semen stains the mountaintops” was good for a giggle but “thunderous sparks in the dark of the stadium” was like a love note when you wrote it on someone’s binder. Listening to Aeroplane with someone else was more intimate than our clumsy attempts at sex.

Of all the homegrown psych-folk acts that bubbled up in the ’90s, Neutral Milk Hotel was the one that spread. There’s no way to pin down why Mangum’s songs went viral while thousands of musicians dwindled in obscurity. Maybe it was the strange beauty of the lyrics, the utter conviction in their delivery; maybe real genius always finds its audience. Whatever the impetus, the pull to Neutral Milk Hotel was strengthened by the thought that we were listening to something that could never happen again. We cherished those albums and demos and bootlegs because we thought there would never be more. We felt like archeologists digging up dead utopias.

neutral milk hotel box set

On Monday, when Neutral Milk Hotel announced their first full-band shows since 1998, I didn’t know how to be excited. I was surprised, maybe, to see Scott Spillane and Jeremy Barnes come out of hiding. But I didn’t feel as though something I’d waited for forever was finally about to come true. When you want something for so long, how can the experience live up to the expectation? What happens when a band built on mystery breaks that mystery?

Any devotee of Mangum and his Elephant 6 family has fantasized about their live performances. People posted detailed fan fiction to message boards about what it would be like to see the band play. You can piece together what a show must have felt like from the ambient sounds on those innumerable tapes. You can hear the breathing, the drinking, the sweating, the crying of those who were lucky enough to watch Neutral Milk Hotel perform the first time around — before the legend overshadowed the people who found simple joy in banging on floor toms, blowing into bagpipes, dragging bows across saws.

Reunion tours rely less upon the audience’s present experience than they do the memories that experience evokes. Bands can play like shit if they want — fans are hearing them play 20 years ago. But for most Neutral Milk Hotel fans, those memories are varied, private, and completely severed from the presence of the band itself. Few who attend NMH’s string of Southeastern dates will actually remember seeing the band in their heyday. Most would have been kids when Mangum played those raw, unbridled sets at the Knitting Factory or Sudsy Malone’s. Most will go to act out memories they only wished they had.

Neutral Milk Hotel can’t go on tour without disrupting their own mythology. They’re one of the only bands whose fan base grew around artifacts, not experiences. There was magic to them because they were so firmly lodged in the past—in screechy demo tapes, yellowed show posters, and websites that hadn’t been updated since the ’90s. The cult of Mangum felt like a religion because it existed in the collective imagination of its participants. No real live experience ever tainted the scripture of the band. What happens, then, when Jesus shows up?

I don’t know if I’ll go to Georgia in October. Jeff Mangum’s songs have meant more to me than almost any other music—I’ve wrapped so much memory inside his scratchy chords and braying horns. But I know that if I go, I’ll be disappointed, no matter how good the band sounds, no matter how awed the crowd. If transcendence exists, it’s not something that can be forced.

Being at a Neutral Milk Hotel show can never feel as good as wanting to be at a Neutral Milk Hotel show. It was something to wait for. What do we do when the wait is up? We look for new miracles, I guess.

16 comments

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waxnfax
May 12, 2013 at 8:43 am

I didn’t think it was a bad article and to be completely honest I felt the same way up until I saw Mangum play BAM. All the people who’ve posted got it right though, it was one of the best show’s I’ve ever been to. Still, I can understand not wanting the live show to ruin it for him. I refuse to watch ‘Across the Universe,’ because I don’t want it to ruin the Beatles for me. Case in point, this Nick Drake tribute album came out a month ago, Way to Blue. Fucking thing ruined a bit of Nick Drake for me. Anyone ever seen Dylan live? Same thing, you think of passion and the whole burning 24 year old NYC Dylan and then you get an old man playing keyboards. I get what he means. Not a bad article, a little melodramatic, but you know what, sometimes honesty can put a person in a very lonely place.

Robert Michael Malaky McGreal
May 9, 2013 at 2:39 pm

What if you were wrong and this actually bumped up their legacy? Are you going to just make this shitty article and then not respond to any of the people below? Really supporting your journalism there arent ya. If you really cared about Neutral Milk Hotel would it matter what it’ll do for their legacy? I mean that is the kind of shit that Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush focus on not someone like Jeff Mangum. You should promote the excitement that is going around everywhere except for with you apparently but this seems like the most insincere lack of excitement around. It seems like you wrote this piece just to be controversial and get attention. This is not journalism this is an article written by somebody who should be shopping at hot topic with their necessity for attention and “being different”. Sasah (and i even just spelled your name wrong) you are an awful journalist and i really truly hope that you never write an article again. COS please quit these shitty hipster pieces and just SUBJECTIVELY report on music news because you all seem incapable of writing objective pieces without slandering or doing something stupid to grab attention. Let your writing wow the audience, not your shitty headlines that go against literally every Neutral Milk Hotel fans excitement

Dzhershk
May 8, 2013 at 6:34 pm

I was wondering if I was the only person who felt this article is a bit farty rubbish, and I didn’t even know that it was full of factual errors like you guys

eddie collins
May 3, 2013 at 9:01 am

Why don’t all of you shut the fuck up and quit blathering. NM was an average band with a posing singer with an affected voice.It is all just a bunch of fluff

Stue Trory
May 2, 2013 at 11:12 am

if only we could all exist in a world where touring Europe and the states multiple times is the same as being “in hiding”.
way to reveal yourself as an idiot.

i know you say you discovered and listened to them in high school, but are you sure that wasn’t just last year?

rosie
May 2, 2013 at 10:46 am

does no one realize that jeff mangum has been playing shows quite regularly and they are consistently amazing?

hyperlite3681 .
May 1, 2013 at 7:25 pm

RULE #1 OF HIPSTER CODE: NEVER LET THEM THINK YOUR TRYING TO HARD

Aaron Poehler
May 1, 2013 at 2:46 pm

This is terrible writing that is justified only by its own utter cluelessness and astonishing disconnection from reality.

tabelz
May 1, 2013 at 1:45 pm

It’s almost saying that the story is worse because the band started playing shows again.

This seems a bit more appropriate for Mangum’s reemergence than Neutral Milk Hotel’s return.

Greg Urquhart
May 1, 2013 at 12:11 pm

This article needs some work. By someone else…

jayperri
May 1, 2013 at 11:18 am

It’s the solipsism and worship like yours that kept Mangum out of the spotlight for so long…if you simply appreciated the communal experience you were given by the opportunity to see him and the band rather than worrying about how the “mystique” would be broken, you would likely have a truer understanding of what Mangum was trying to do with his music. You created the pedestal…it’s not Mangum’s responsibility to keep it standing.

Dustin Artz
May 3, 2013 at 5:41 pm

Well said.

Alec Cole
May 1, 2013 at 2:15 am

I saw the Jeff Mangum set at Coachella last year and he actually brought out original NMH members. Being in a crowd of a few thousand people all united by the same songs, knowing all the same lyrics… that was far superior to any idolization of what a show could be.

Dustin Artz
May 3, 2013 at 5:40 pm

I was also there. Even before they came out I got chills. This article is nonsense.

Hettie
May 1, 2013 at 12:46 am

“I was surprised, maybe, to see…..Jeremy Barnes come out of hiding.”

Are you kidding me? He’s put out seven albums in the last 10 years, to say nothing of touring Europe and the US. The internet is your friend. There’s this thing called “Google”……

Gonzo Chicago
May 1, 2013 at 12:32 am

“But I know that if I go, I’ll be disappointed, no matter how good the
band sounds, no matter how awed the crowd. If transcendence exists, it’s
not something that can be forced.”

….wat.

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