Live preview: Jeff Mangum
This generation's Brian Wilson returns.
Fri Jan 13 2012
Photograph: Cory Greenwell
The funny thing about nostalgia shows—those tours at which indie heroes of yesteryear emerge to trawl through the canon—is that the sheer force of fan enthusiasm and devotion tends to kill everything subtle and evocative in the music. Try having a Proustian madeleine moment to your favorite song when 2,000 fans are baying along to its chorus. If this sounds overdramatic and/or pompous, look at recent YouTube footage of Neutral Milk Hotel frontman Jeff Mangum singing "Two Headed Boy," from the group's beloved 1998 album, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. The song is no less lovely than it ever was, but you can barely hear Mangum over the crowd.
The excitement is certainly understandable. Mangum all but disappeared after the release of NMH's second album, just as the cult around Aeroplane began to build; he was rumored to have had a nervous breakdown as a result of the attention. More fanciful mutterings had him stockpiling rice in advance of the Y2K bug, living in a monastery, releasing an album of Bulgarian field music (that one's actually true) and planning a hot-air balloon trip across the Atlantic. When Merge records reissued Aeroplane in 2005, Pitchfork awarded it a straight 10, confirming its status as compulsory listening and the sonic equivalent of The Catcher in the Rye—just as Mangum himself had become J.D. Salinger, or Brian Wilson, or any other Icarus-type fallen genius you could name.
But lo, he's back. Last September, Mangum played solo at All Tomorrow's Parties in Asbury Park. He repeated the feat at the Town Hall in October, sang to Occupy Wall Street protestors in November and announced a tour including these sold-out BAM shows. Mangum, of course, is not giving interviews, but it's fair to say that for a shy guy, he's got his work cut out for him.
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