Fourteen years ago Jeff Mangum disappeared. Having made one of the greatest fin de siècle albums, the wonderful, beloved, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, Mangum – the major creative force behind Neutral Milk Hotel – stopped the world and got off, returning only in glimpses or to release field recordings of eastern European folk.
Whether it was a struggle to deal with the attention, or – as myth has it – that he was simply so broken by the beauty of In the Aeroplane, a magical realist conceptual take on the death of Anne Frank, that he had nothing left to offer; devotees have waited forlornly for Mangum to return.
When whispers of a secret show in the US last year flowered into a full-on tour, including two London shows and the curation of All Tomorrow's Parties, there was almost an air of a disbelief that Mangum would be actually come back. A feeling that was swollen by the initial postponement of these shows.
The return has been fittingly understated. Mangum performs mainly alone, surrounded by a harem of acoustic guitars and occasionally joined by members of support act The Music Tapes.
The setting of the Union Chapel is particularly apt for this resurrection, with the crowd – despite knowing every word and tic of Aeroplane songs like "Holland, 1945" – silent until encouraged to sing along. When they do, it's with the mousey reticence of the unwilling churchgoer. The howling "I love you Jes-us Christ" mantra of "The King of Carrot Flowers, Pts Two & Three" adds to the aura.
All but one song ("Ferris Wheel on Fire"), come from Neutral Milk Hotel's two albums, Aeroplane and On Avery Island. Midway through, Mangum quietly talks about his struggle to return to this material: "It's been really interesting to go back to and play these songs as they were originally written. Five years ago, I didn't think I could," he says.
It's as simple as possible. Man in church sings with guitar. But Mangum's ability to squeeze every drop of emotion out of his voice, which howls and canters amid the candlelight, makes this as absorbing as could be hoped for.
The moments when he's accompanied are the highlights but, for many, Mangum reading his lyrics out over a pint of stout would have been enough. A one-song encore of "In the Aeroplane Over the Sea" sees him off into the night to a standing ovation which feels like it was 14 years in the making. Let's just hope he's back before 2026.