@supercooleric Over the past two weeks, mythical and mysterious indie legend Jeff Mangum of Neutral Milk Hotel has performed four public shows. Some fans (optimistically) speculate that Mangum’s recent return to the spotlight signifies a coming reunion for Neutral Milk Hotel, a band that hasn’t played a show since 1998. I would not have speculated such things, but my pessimism took a blow earlier this month when I saw Mangum make an interesting remark during a set of shows in New Jersey.
Now I have to ask myself, “Could Neutral Milk Hotel really be getting back together?”
YES: He said it.
Well, kind of. During his Sunday night show at the stately Paramount Theatre in Asbury Park, New Jersey, at All Tomorrow’s Parties: I’ll Be Your Mirror, Mangum repeatedly implored the crowd to sing along with him. Like his Friday show before it, audience participation was low. (This isn’t unusual for these recent set of shows. It seems fans are too awestruck at the sight of their idol to dare vocalize during what may very well be the first and last time they see him perform.) But this night, Jeff asked the crowd to sing the horn melodies and added, “Scott [Spillane, one of the four members of Neutral Milk Hotel] is not here to play horns. But he will be soon.”
NO: That doesn’t mean a reunion is planned.
Mangum specifically mentioned Spillane and no one else from the band. While that’s one step closer to the full Neutral Milk Hotel roster, Spillane has previously joined Mangum on this tour at a stop in Montreal, so a Magnum/Spillane pairing isn’t a new development. We would still be missing Jeremy Barnes and Julian Koster.
YES: Right, but I’d bet money there’s a reunion planned for the Mangum-curated All Tomorrow’s Parties in December.
Spillane plus Mangum equals half of Neutral Milk Hotel. They’ve played together so we know there’s no bad blood there. What about the other two members of the band? Barnes and his band, A Hawk and a Hacksaw, joined Mangum on stage for a couple songs Monday night. Koster played with Mangum in 2008. All four members of the band will be together in December at the All Tomorrow’s Parties Mangum is curating. (Also in attendance will be just about every single person who has ever performed with Mangum in the Elephant 6 Collective, a group of artists including the members of Neutral Milk Hotel, Of Montreal and The Apples in Stereo.) What better place for Mangum to stage a Neutral Milk Hotel reunion than at a festival where he has selected the acts himself?
NO: Mangum and Co. have been together several times before and there’s never been a full reunion.
Jeff has made appearances at friends’ shows, including during sets by the Elephant 6 Holiday Surprise, but we’ve never had an honest-to-goodness reunion performance once. There’s no reason to expect anything different this time.
YES: He’s releasing new material.
New to you and me, at least. After a decade of sporadic appearances, Mangum is appearing in public regularly leading up to the November 22 release of boxed set including unreleased material. After baby-stepping back into fans’ minds with a private show in Brooklyn last December, Mangum has continued to pick up steam — playing more shows and adding more dates.
NO: This tour is to promote the boxed set. No new dates have been announced beyond the end of this year.
Even if Mangum is testing the waters that doesn’t mean he’s ready to dive back in. It’s likely whatever elements made Jeff want to disappear from the world of indie rock stardom are still present today. (During one show at New Jersey last weekend, a fan shouted, “Don’t ever leave us again!” The audience groaned, but Jeff handled it well: “Do we need to go see my therapist together and work this out?”) Mangum has an army of obsessive, worshipping fans who no doubt have unrealistic expectations for any future material Mangum may produce. That kind of pressure can’t be easy to deal with. Though Mangum probably isn’t hurting for cash by lo-fi indie standards — even a decade after its release In the Aeroplane Over the Sea was still moving units — the upcoming boxed set and the tour could just be a trip to the bank for Mangum.
YES: He’s made no attempts to separate himself from the Neutral Milk Hotel name.
On concert posters, it’s “Jeff Mangum (Neutral Milk Hotel).” Mangum even introduced himself at his performance to support Occupy Wall Street as “Jeff of Neutral Milk Hotel.” Then there are the songs. Other than a couple of covers (e.g., Daniel Johnston, Roky Erickson, Minutemen) Mangum is playing Neutral Milk Hotel songs. Of course, that’s what his fans want to hear, but considering that many former front-men refrain from playing their previous project’s material when they go solo, that seems to me a sign that Mangum hasn’t given up on Neutral Milk Hotel just yet.
NO: There’s no indication of new music coming from Mangum or Neutral Milk Hotel.
Mangum hasn’t debuted any new original material on the road. Most bands try out new stuff before it makes its way onto an album.This is just a victory lap for Mangum, a little bit of closure and a chance for his fans to see him one last time before he disappears forever.
YES: It would be really cool.
It would. It’s been 13 years since the world has seen a Neutral Milk Hotel show. That means any fan under the age of 30 has probably never seen the band play together. (The baby from Live at Jittery Joe’s doesn’t count — that was a Mangum solo show.) Besides getting a chance to hear these cult classic songs live with full accompaniment, a reunited Neutral Milk Hotel could mean new material.
But perhaps the question should be would a new album or a reunited band live up to fans’ great expectations? Maybe. After going into see Mangum this week with unrealistically high expectations of my own, I can confirm that some experiences can live up to the hype. If Mangum — who, let’s admit it, isn’t particularly charismatic, gifted at guitar, or the best singer — can exceed expectations, I’m confident Mangum, Spillade, Barnes and Koster could do the same on a stage together.