Published Jan 20, 2014Ten minutes after Neutral Milk Hotel left the stage, a semblance of normality returned to conversation, but there remained a stunned quality, as if, violently shaken from a dream, attendees were cautiously readjusting to consciousness. Few were using phones, even those without company. "My soul is full," said one kid, looking dazed. "God, it was just... awesome."
The cult of Neutral Milk Hotel persists, and quite why remains mysterious. Maybe it helps that bandleader Jeff Mangum, dressed for press shots like some lost-in-time nomadic huntsman, has always cut a pure, almost Christ-like figure. Circa 1998, when the rising star of In the Aeroplane Over the Sea spotlit Mangum's disappearance from public view, it was unclear which camp he fell into: regular low-key retiree, free to go grocery shopping unhindered or tortured recluse, strung out and shut-in, struck dumb by some holy awakening.
This all is ultimately moot, for now that he's arisen, Mangum has the refined air of a fully mortal, only slightly nomadic cult artist. Like bandmate Scott Spillane, he wore extensive facial foliage, along with a hand-knit Argyle sweater you just know goes back decades. It's a shame photography was banned, because the rest of his troupe, a seven-piece at full stretch, closely resembled a casting call for The Neverending Story; Spillane is roundly elfin and merry, while a prancing Julian Koster — whose headwear seemed modeled on a lopsided dog with one droopy ear — looked like a woodland sprite.
"You're so beautiful," screamed a potentially inebriated man, addressing nobody in particular. "Thank you!" responded elfin trumpeter Spillane. "I wish everyone would tell me that."
The night's first surprise was a psychological one. In the age of Facebook likes, synthetic camaraderie and back-patting, it might be forgotten that an outpouring of communal love, of uncontrived positivity heard and felt en masse, retains the power to bewitch and transport, to plant seeds of transcendence. On the night, the whooping and sighing and singing along was immense, notepad-droppingly loud, and the opening songs — Aeroplane's "The King of Carrot Flowers" trilogy — felt so monumental that they induced a weird kind of presence, a rare, unselfconscious connection to physicality.
With a band as expressive as Neutral Milk Hotel, what surprises on record morphs and renews live. There is some analogue in Mangum's sharpest lyrics to George Saunders' analysis of humour: that it's "what happens when we're told the truth quicker and more directly than we're used to." Hear one snippet from "Song Against Sex," an outburst so ecstatically honest and naked you can't help but laugh: "Don't take those pills your boyfriend gave you, you're too wonderful to die."
But the night's most hallowed moment arrived halfway into the 80-minute set: "Oh Comely," Aeroplane's epic and frequently covered masterpiece, is the song that best reveals the band's preternatural charm. That sounds like hype, but anybody who has tried to play, or listened to, a cover of an Aeroplane song will understand the record to be un-replicable. Possibly it's the tone, or vocal affect, or some subtle quirk in the chord transitions, which possess a stately, rummaging quality, as if Mangum were conjuring the next part from a magic hat containing some folksy secret.
As the opening chords rummaged and conjured, most stood gazing, struck-still and enraptured. The scene confirmed something we all know, but often forget: that no fantasy is complete until it unites a community, and that it takes more than a click to truly share something.