I first discovered Neutral Milk Hotel ten years after the release of their seminal record, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. I found a lot of personal joy showing their records to others, meeting other fans and spreading the secret cult of Jeff Mangum – the band leader who disappeared from public life in 2001. He returned about a year after I had discovered his work, announcing a solo acoustic tour that managed to keep out of the public eye. Mangum cleverly (or deviously) made headlines again after two years of solo touring, getting the band’s classic lineup together for a show at Prospect Park.
The band was loose, but charmingly so, and they sounded great. Songs like “Gardenhead/Leave Me Alone” were played at almost double time from the recording, giving it a much more punk and distorted sound than I could have imagined. The side-players, all leaders of their own band, enjoyed themselves on stage, especially saw player Julian Koster. The band was extremely thankful to the crowd, expressing their gratitude several times. Jeff Mangum jumped around the stage too, a marked difference from his acoustic shows where he sat stoically while the audience quietly stared in awe. It felt cathartic to be seeing him, a former ghost, in the flesh, and to be able to sing these songs with other devout fans.
In my darkest moment, I thought that perhaps these songs were hurt by the reunion and communal live experience: these songs were meant to be listened to alone, felt deeply and thought over. There was a palpable difference watching Mangum play with the band vs solo. In a world where you can find anyone on the internet, Mangum managed to disappear completely because he couldn’t bear to sing these songs for years. Watching the band perform these raw, emotional songs in such a different way so many years later, proved to everyone in the crowd that Neutral Milk Hotel, though remembered often for their incredibly unique ensemble, is still just a rock band. It wasn’t exactly the experience I was expecting, but still, when they played “Holland, 1945” as the second song of the night, I turned to my friend smiling ear to ear who remarked, “That’s a satisfied man.”
– Layne Montgomery