For many (myself included) part of the allure of the package that came with discovering Neutral Milk Hotel was that it was bound in mystery, rumour and enigma.
A band absconded by its own creator and songwriter, Jeff Mangum, who supposedly went underground due to the pressures of new found fame and notoriety that their second album In the Aeroplane Over the Sea brought him and then - like a haunted house – was left dormant for years, gaining a new lease of life, a fresh set of rumours and an escalated cult status for every new generation that discovers it.
Sixteen years since the band’s last release Mangum bumbles on stage to a thunderous roar, his hair long and scraggly tucked under a cap and sporting a huge bedraggled beard – a get-up that hides his face almost entirely.
This could almost be read as something of a playful in-joke to his once supposed hermit status, if he still didn’t seem so uneasy and hidden on stage at times. However, conversation is not the reason people are here, so Mangum’s vocal absence of personality throughout the evening can easily be forgiven.
Starting solo and acoustic Mangum hammers his guitar strings and sparks up the intro to ‘Two Headed Boy’. Mangum’s voice is a delightful but strange beast; it’s so powerful and brunt, raging and blowing like a heavy gale and, like being caught in a windstorm, it whips and changes direction constantly, almost always on the verge of steering off course. The unpredictable path of Mangum’s vocal delivery is often what makes it such a transfixing experience. At its peak it sounds like the blasting foghorn of a ship out at sea and yet at it’s most delicate it’s still that same unmistakable, powerful sound of a foghorn blast but from a boat coming to rescue you, one soaked in comfort, ease and an inescapable, permeated joy.
The band joins him for the natural follow-up ‘The Fool’ as drums pound, horns toot, resonating richly as accordions howl gently. Neutral Milk Hotel are often mistakenly lumbered in with other ‘lo-fi’ groups and affiliated sensibilities, however, intricate, multi-layered instrumentalism and considered textural accompaniment have always been as integral a component to the group’s output as the rudimentary, raggedy guitar-and-voice combination. No more so is this clear than throughout this evening - Julian Koster’s singing saw is a constantly delightful touch, one that both weeps and floats, a drifting soundscape that succeeds in being both melancholic and uplifting at the same time. Similarly, the accompanying brass can be as exuberant and bold as it can wistful and sombre.
Tonight’s venue is an old Methodist Church and during the searing sing-a-long to ‘The King of Carrot Flowers Pts. Two & Three’ the sight and sound of seeing 2,000 plus people, arms aloft, screaming “I love you Jesus Christ!’ takes on a strange, rousing atmosphere as crucifix’s punctuate the building via the stain glassed windows that circle the entire room. It’s clear however, that any devotion is placed entirely towards those stood on stage making an explosive, rambunctious racket.
Tonight ends with Mangum solo again on ‘Two-Headed Boy Pt 2’ before the band briefly return for the last time on ‘Engine’ which is a delicate, understated farewell to an evening that – much like the band themselves – has swatted back and forth between moments of euphoric, collective expulsion and intricate, introverted isolation.