The last time Jeff Mangum toured behind the songs he wrote for Neutral Milk Hotel, the world was a very different place. One difference in particular is that in late 1998, when the band hit Chicago on the only real tour it ever did to promote its landmark album, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, it was booked at tiny Lincoln Park club Lounge Ax. When Mangum rolled through early last week as a solo act, he played two nights at the 1,000-seat Athenaeum Theatre, both of which sold out in minutes—online scalpers were selling tickets for almost $200 in the days just before the shows.
Clearly the 13 or so intervening years have been very good to Mangum, despite the fact that he disbanded NMH shortly after that 1998 tour and has spent most of his time since then out of the music business and stubbornly invisible to the public eye. Since Aeroplane his discography is extremely slim. He's contributed to Major Organ and the Adding Machine, an odd album of sound collages by former bandmates and other members of Elephant 6 (a loose collective Mangum cofounded in the late 80s), attempted to undercut bootleggers with a live solo album, and compiled a collection of field recordings called Orange Twin Field Works: Volume 1 from a folk festival in Bulgaria, but he's released only one new original song—and that was as a widget embedded in his website. For a while he would occasionally show up onstage with Elephant 6-associated acts, but until very recently he wasn't playing proper shows. His existence has been so hermitlike that when you type "Jeff Mangum" into Google it suggests adding the word "crazy" or "dead" to your search.
Counterintuitively enough, though, hiding from your fans can be a great way to promote your brand. Aeroplane was a modest success upon its initial release (at least in indie-rock terms), but in the past decade it's not only found a spot in the indie canon but climbed into its uppermost echelons—in 2003 Pitchfork named it the fourth best album of the 1990s. Knowing about Neutral Milk Hotel is practically a prerequisite now if you're looking to be taken seriously as a music person; by the same token, showing off knowledge about the band is an easy short cut to being taken seriously as a music person. When April Ludgate, the dead-cool quasi-hipster character on Parks and Recreation, revealed last year that Jeff Mangum is her dream boyfriend, indie rockers worldwide lost their shit with joy.
So Mangum's return to public performance feels more than a little messianic. The crowd in front of the Athenaeum before his February 6 show was charged with a fervent energy that I don't tend to associate with indie-rock audiences, even audiences at highly anticipated shows. Though it certainly wasn't a majority underage crowd, that's what it felt like: the fans lined up down the block were buzzing like people still young enough to expect that the music they were about to see was going to absolutely alter their entire lives. Since Mangum insists on a total ban on photography during his performances, I'd brought artist, author, and cabdriver Dmitry Samarov with me to sketch the show. The word he settled on to describe the crowd was "reverential."
This quasi-religious fervor—call it the Jeff Mangum Effect—only intensified once the man himself took the stage, unaccompanied, and sat in a chair surrounded by acoustic guitars. After the deafening applause that greeted his appearance had died down, he started into Aeroplane's "Two Headed Boy Pt. 2," and from where I sat the crowd was an unbroken sea of rapt faces. A lot of people were singing along—a practice Mangum encourages—but absolutely none of them were talking to one another or checking their phones. I can't remember the last time I saw that at a show.
Mangum's performance had a lot to offer even if you weren't expecting a religious experience—if, say, you're the type of person who never actually bought Aeroplane because you'd heard it more than enough on coffee-shop stereos. His songs may be structurally rudimentary, but the melodies atop those chord progressions are complex and fascinatingly odd. His voice is strangely flat and affectless, aside from his frequent habit of gliding in a portamento from one note to another—which has the effect of making it seem like he's searching for a note while singing off the top of his head, even though the songs are a decade-plus old. This only adds to the impression he gives that he still feels naive wonder at the act of creating music—something that seems to be an integral part of his appeal.
But Mangum wasn't playing for the unconverted, of course, and he knows what his fans want. The set list was made up almost entirely of material from Aeroplane. He barely touched the first Neutral Milk Hotel album, On Avery Island, which even hardened Mangum obsessives can agree is spotty to weak. The only new song he played, "Little Birds," is also from what I can tell the only one he's written since Aeroplane that he's performed in public. Occasionally he'd bring out one or more members of the trio that had opened for him—Andrew Rieger, Laura Carter, and Scott Spillane, who've played in NMH, Elf Power, and the Gerbils—to back him up for a bit. To a casual observer their contributions might have amounted to nothing more than, say, an amateurish flugelhorn solo, but the audience responded like Clarence Clemons had jumped onstage.
To all appearances, it was everything a Jeff Mangum fanatic could have wanted. Which leads me to wonder what Mangum will (or can) do next. Whether he meant it to or not, the Salinger act he pulled in the aughts worked out incredibly well for him. It helped make him a cult figure who can still sell 2,000 tickets as fast as a tween-pop sensation. But being a cult figure is a delicate balancing act, and if he were to sustain this activity, he'd likely jeopardize that status. A new album would inevitably be compared to Aeroplane, and it's far from clear that Mangum has the material to compete with his own catalog. If he somehow managed to equal or surpass Aeroplane, he'd probably end up with a bigger audience than he already has, which would endanger the specialness of the connection his current fans feel with him. That can be death for a cult act—if Mangum loses his shine with the people most devoted to him, the next time he disappears he might actually fade away.
The least risky thing Mangum could do right now would be to tour again, stoking the sentiments of his audience and bankrolling another decade of seclusion. Something that happened during the show I saw made me think his fans might actually prefer it if he went back into hiding. Throughout the night, Mangum fielded questions from the audience between songs, which ranged from goofy ("Boxers or briefs?") to philosophical ("How do you feel about reincarnation?"). At one point someone asked if he had any plans to record new material. Mangum said no, and he was answered by applause as loud as any the entire night.