I drove two hours from Philadelphia to see Jeff Mangum play in Baltimore. I was excited. Then, unexpectedly, five seconds into "Oh Comely," I got kind of sad.
Over the course of the Neutral Milk Hotel frontman's set, that feeling did not go away. Something felt ... off. Maybe it was the fact that he was playing those songs (In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, On Avery Island) and only those songs — a time capsule of a performance. Yes, the reclusive genius was back from exile, but with what? It was hard not to see tragedy in those fallow years. His voice sounded great, but he used it in the service of simple acoustic versions of those classic tracks. He reached in all the same places, and warbled at all the same moments. It felt more like a recital than a performance.
Hitting all his marks did have one notable side effect: It allowed people to sing along. Loudly. Mangum encouraged this, asking no fewer than three times at the beginning of the set for people to join him. I don't know if this was a bizarre incarnation of shyness or a manifestation of ego, but I did not pay (or drive) to hear the guy next to me with the stupid mustache belt out "A Baby for Pree" at the top of his lungs. Occasionally it was hard to pull Mangum's marvelous wail out of the din. It was all very Dashboard Confessional. (Ranting aside: The moment when Mustache — and suspenders! — Man came in too early on a verse of "King of Carrot Flowers, Part 1" was one of the best moments of my concert-going life.)
On that note, there was something about the rapture of many attendees that made me vaguely uncomfortable. Before Mangum took the stage, a woman from the venue explained that, per Jeff's special request, there was to be no photography or recordings. She asked everyone to turn off their phones. All around us, people made a big show of compliance. The girl behind us exclaimed, "I have never before turned off my phone when they asked me to. But I'll do it for him." (Yours truly settled for the "silent" setting). The reverence was just too much. It was as if people feared one camera flash might send him — and his pageboy haircut — back into the wilderness.
For a lot of people at this show, it was clear that finally seeing Mangum perform these songs was ecstasy. Their fervor was downright religious. Watching them in the throes of adoration felt oddly intimate — like getting a peak inside the emotional world of their teenage bedroom. The man and the songs had become near-fetish objects.
If I sound too harsh, please know that I love these songs. Truly. But I realized, watching this pale, melancholy man sing them on stage, that they are just that: songs. Brilliant songs, nothing more. Somehow, by withholding the simple pleasure of live performance — an integral ingredient in most fan-artist relationships — he has fostered a ravenous appetite. Hey, I drove from Philadelphia. This was Jeff Mangum. AND HE WAS SINGING "HOLLAND, 1945!" (I do love that song.) It was supposed to mean something huge, but instead it meant a guy on a stage with a guitar. And maybe that's OK. Sometimes we give the famous, the talented, the artistic too much of ourselves. It's obsession, and not all that different from this. (For more on this point, check out this excellent New York Magazine story on John Darnielle and his rabid fans.)
Maybe if people didn't lay so much emotional baggage and reverence at this guy's feet, he wouldn't have felt the need to run away. Then he probably would have stuck around long enough to disappoint them.
I don't know why Mangum decided to do these shows. There is certainly an appetite for them (this pair of shows sold out in minutes), and I'm glad that I went, but they don't seem to have anything to do with creativity, inspiration or saying anything new about an admittedly exceptional catalog. As we were walking out, I heard a guy behind us validate my misgivings. He said, "There was something kind of sad about it."