Recently, Emusic subscribers voted Neutral Milk Hotel’s 1998 Anne Frank-obsessed opus In the Aeroplane Over the Sea as the best album of all time, just one of many indications of the deep and enduring passion that fans still have for the record over a decade after its release. When NMH leader and songwriter Jeff Mangum went AWOL in the ‘00s , due to tour fatigue and a fabled nervous breakdown, the two albums and various odds-and-sods released during the band’s short tenure took on an even more hallowed glow.
Now Mangum is back, tentatively playing solo shows like this sold-out Halloween-weekend gig at New York City’s tony Town Hall. After expressing polite appreciation for opening act Ólöf Arnalds, (a charmingly pixieish Icelandic folk singer with a stunning alto), the reverent audience rewarded Mangum with a standing ovation just for showing up.
One suspects he could have read from the Manhattan phone book, or debuted an a capella rock opera, and no one would have flinched, but instead he did a solid set of classic NMH songs, drawing mainly from Aeroplane and the equally haunting On Avery Island. He launched into “Two Headed Boy Pt. 2,” and moved on through “In the Aeroplane…,” “Song Against Sex,” “Gardenhead/Leave Me Alone” (whose lines “…angels have slipped through our landslide/And filled up our garden with snow” were especially apt for a city in the midst of an October snow-storm), and an intense rendition of “Oh Comely.” The mood sweetened with a lovely cover of Roky Erickson’s “I Love the Living You” (from 1999’s Never Say Goodbye album). Then Mangum got feisty on quietly rocking versions of “Ghost,” “A Baby for Pree,” and “Naomi.”
What happened next was questionable. In a sincere effort to connect with his people, Mangum encouraged singing along, and for the rest of the set–all three parts of “King of Carrot Flowers” and “Holland 1945”– the audience roared along like drunks around a campfire. Touching? Sure, but also uncomfortably reminiscent of an oldies concert, and a little deflating for people who came to hear Mangum’s resonant howl.
But howl he did–sitting among his arsenal of five acoustic guitars of variable tones and tunings, Mangum was in fine, strong voice, and was much chattier than he was in the ‘90s. He engaged with the audience, playfully allowing questions (although he wasn’t so forthcoming answering them), and requesting that the house lights be turned up from time to time so that he could see his fans.
His departure raised another standing ovation, upon which he returned to the stage for “Two Headed Boy,” and the gorgeous, country-inflected “Engine,” (the b-side of “Holland, 1945”). One more standing-o could not persuade him back, but the audience had gotten a solid hour of pure Jeff Mangum, and returned to their previously scheduled snow storm considerably warmed.