Two Little Birds: Jeff Mangum, Chris Knox and how broken nerves get better

ARTS, Features, Music
img_neturalmilkhotelA consideration of Neutral Milk Hotel’s 2013 reunion tour of New Zealand across three nights and three distinctive moods.

In late November, Neutral Milk Hotel took their reunion tour to New Zealand. I attended both Auckland shows and the Wellington one. What follows is an attempt to make sense of how music that had been first performed fifteen years ago, and had led to the lead singer’s mental breakdown, could be performed with such passion and commitment when so many other reunion shows have fallen flat.

The Kings Arms is a venue well-known to fans of Neutral Milk Hotel. It was the venue for the only Jeff Mangum show between 1999 and 2008. As Mangum confessed between songs in the widely available bootleg of the 2001 show:

“We weren’t even going to do a gig, we just came down here to get away from our new President, and then some little bird mentioned doing a gig and I couldn’t say no and though he wouldn’t admit it, he only mentioned it slightly and if anyone in the world asked he do a gig I couldn’t say no to him.”

The “little bird” in question was Chris Knox, who joined Mangum on stage for a performance of John Lennon’s ‘Mother’.

The reason for the Neutral Milk Hotel hiatus was lead singer Jeff Mangum’s nervous breakdown. At the 2001 Kings Arms show Mangum at first seemed in good spirits about the crisis. He said, “it was a very wonderful thing to have happened to me, and I mean that sincerely.” A voice from the crowd asked, “where can I get one from?” Mangum joked that the audience member could borrow his because he was “just about done with it.”

A couple of songs later, the tone changed as Mangum apologised for the intensity of the discussion about his breakdown. “There’s just certain things that you can’t sing your way out of and so you’ve got to put that aside or you’ll get really fucked up. In case anyone’s wondering.”

It was Knox’s own breakdown—a stroke in 2009—that saw Mangum return to the recording studio where he made a recording of Knox’s Tall Dwarfs song ‘Sign the Bottom Line’ to the benefit album Stroke: Songs for Chris Knox. It can’t have been the easiest of returns: the song was too late for inclusion on the New Zealand version of the discs, but did make the cut for the U.S. version.

But despite the slowness of that first recorded offering, Mangum has begun to tour in the last four years. He first played some shows accompanying friends’ bands, then played some as a solo performer and more recently has reformed the original full band plus his wife, filmmaker Astra Taylor, and set out on a world tour.

The Neutral Milk Hotel shows were stranger than any show I’d ever been to: they simply weren’t enjoyable in the sense that an ordinary gig might be. This was no drunken hedonism, but an oscillation between a joy that other writers have compared to religious worship, and something much, much darker. It was the only concert at which a grimace might be your strongest response. That phrase might strike readers as off key: a grimace, really? Instead of offering a chronology of the three nights, I am going to run through the three moods to a Neutral Milk Hotel gig.

The first mood is the playful psychedelic music that can only take place when the full band plays alongside Mangum. These are the danceable tracks and most similar to the material from the Everything Is EP and On Avery Island. The band puts the brass away and becomes something more like a four piece rock band, albeit one that is more likely to be taking LSD than whiskey.

At the Wellington show I arrived too late and stood too far back to really enjoy these songs. I needed to be in the amorphous semi-circle of flailing humans at front/centre. I atoned for being so late to the Wellington show by being front row at the last two Kings Arms shows. Then I really understood that Neutral Milk Hotel were danceable.

‘King of Carrot Flower Part III, (originally ‘Up and Over We Go’ from the Hype City Soundtrack) was the most representative of this raucous Neutral Milk Hotel mood. The ecstatic cacophony of band allowed Mangum to take a step back from the microphone as brass ornamentation was replaced by the riotous clashing of cymbals and guitar fuzz. This mood connects Neutral Milk Hotel to the sound of the wider Elephant 6 recording collective and bands that feature other Neutral Milk Hotel band members such as A Hawk and a Hacksaw and The Gerbils.

The second mood of a Neutral Milk Hotel gig is pious pop. These are the classic songs that turn so many fans into devotees and who make the concert experience one big sing-along. These songs range from those with just Mangum and his guitar to some that feature spare ornamentation, such as that on ‘Two Headed Boy’.

The pious side of the description might cause some consternation. Is that really what the nasally charm of Mangum’s vocals amount to? Is that really the mood that underlines the rich symbolism of his lyrics? I think it is, and not just because of the devotional aspect with which people embrace Mangum, but because of the devotion with which Mangum attaches himself to the figure of Anne Frank throughout In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. The piety of these songs is not so much in the attachment to the fundamentals of some religion, but in the aesthetics of the performance. Pious pop is based on a sense of conviction in the lyrics and vocals. Central to this mood is the notion of suffering through unjust adversity tempered with a cryptic sense of a better future exposed in moments of equally staunch optimism.

In psychoanalytic terms, if you’ll indulge such an analysis, we might say that Mangum’s audience transfers his complicated adoration of Anne Frank onto Mangum, her storyteller. This is the same transference a patient makes when subconsciously moving feelings from their source to the analyst. Anne Frank is a rich focal point for piety: her persecution was unjust, the person who betrayed her family was never found and we’re unsure of how the exact people who arrested, imprisoned, and murdered her were punished.

Mangum opened the Wellington and first Auckland shows with just this kind of pious pop: ‘Two Headed Boy’. Consider the repetition in the first two refrains in that song as a nod to the relationship between Mangum and his fans:

I am listening to hear where you are!
I am listening to hear where you are!
Catching signals that sound in the dark!
Catching signals that sound in the dark!

These lyrics, hollered at a pitch above the rest of the lyrics were a call to those who saw Jeff Mangum’s music as a form of personal salvation. Before the shows I had been unsure as to whether it was going to be an experience where the individual felt this personal connection with Mangum’s music, or whether the experience would be of collective joy.

For me, the pious pop songs marked the difference between being alone in a crowd and being together with the crowd. At the shows I went to with friends this more reverential moment was occasioned by a locking together of our arms. We weren’t alone, but we weren’t with the whole crowd. We held each other because this was music to bring people together, to register that what we felt was something that transcended the shivers down our spines. We shivered together and offered strength to one another not to protect ourselves from the shivering, but to share it.

This description of bodily reactions is the unfashionable passion with which fans relate to the pious side of Neutral Milk Hotel. Compare the nasally crooning of ‘Ferris Wheel on Fire’ to the more sugary indiepop of bands such as Arcade Fire and you’ll understand the prolonged appeal of Neutral Milk Hotel. Or maybe you won’t.

The third mood of a live Neutral Milk Hotel gig is doom.

“Doom” is an inversion of “mood” and an annihilation of the aesthetic of muzak. A “doom mood” is a palindrome that speaks of mysteries beyond meaning, meaning beyond words and Mangum’s point in the earlier quote that there are “just some things” that singing, and maybe any words, won’t save you from.

Doom is the mood underscoring Mangum’s lyrics about skin turned inside out, pasting skin around mailboxes, being inside of someone’s skin. It is a mood that few of the fanatics of Neutral Milk Hotel seemed willing to understand. It is, unlike pious pop, something that should not be sung along to.

Anyone obsessed with the chronology of Neutral Milk Hotel output will be aware of the song ‘Little Birds’, one of two songs written by the band post In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. ‘Little Birds’ has the kind of lyrics that made the most hardcore fans suspect that Mangum would never return to the stage.

In ‘Little Birds’ the New Testament love of In the Aeroplane… is replaced with an Old Testament tale of pure hell:

Do you really want the burning hell that we believe in?
Did you know the burning hell it took your baby brother?
Did you see how far he fell and how he made us suffer?

Child abuse, escapist fantasy, beating in a boy’s brains with a hammer, and coming to peace with life as you’re being drowned meet the chilling closing lines “and I think this is how I would like to leave my body and start again.”

It’s the kind of thing a naïve teenager might show his English teacher and end up with visits to the school’s guidance counsellor, followed by at least two representatives of government departments checking in on his “home situation.”

Mangum has not played ‘Little Birds’ live since his return. Maybe that is because it is a really, really dark song and he doesn’t want to go back there, or maybe he just doesn’t like it much. My guess is that this is one of the songs that failed as an attempt to sing his way out of his nervous breakdown. I am not sure how a room would react to the intensity of the one live recording made of that song.

Where pious pop offers a hope of redemption, doom does not. This is best understood with reference to Mangum’s covering of Vic Chesnutt’s song ‘Isadora Duncan’ in some live sets. Some might find a sprig of optimism garnishing some of Chesnutt’s songs, but doom holds the day and leaves no exit except that chosen by Chesnutt.

At each of the three shows Mangum played, the closest he came to doom was in ‘Oh Comely’. The song is the darkest of those based on the life of Anne Frank. Mangum’s band mates leave the stage. His eyes are shaded beneath the brim of his olive cap, worn over his long hair on each night of the tour. His brown eyes lose the verve that animated previous tracks. The track, of any from In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, takes him back to a very dark place. But, like the ex-smoker who keeps a packet around the house to show she has won the fight, Mangum returns to the song with the same dark place night after night.

‘Oh Comely’ offers the most dissonance of the evening and shows a real disjoint between the fans perceptions of Mangum’s songs and the content of the lyrics. It is understandable that people would sing along to the chorus, heck, it was even used as the title of a UK lifestyle magazine. Most of the song could be described as pious pop and isn’t out of sync with the mood of the rest of the album.

But at the five-minute mark, Mangum expresses the most direct mourning for Anne Frank in a portion of the song that is sung along to by the audience with the same verve as any other lyric:

I know they buried her body with others,
Her sister and mother and five hundred families.

How can Mangum bear it as people sing along to this section of the song?

And how can he bring himself to perform it every night? My only response to the song was a hard grimace. And yet Mangum continues to perform it. Why?

I think that Mangum’s insistence on playing this song speaks to one of the points not touched on so far: the music for these shows was written over fifteen years ago and is no longer as fresh to the band as it was in the ’90s. While money is likely to have been part of the reason why the band got back together, there is also a strong sense that Mangum is flattered by the devotion that is heaped on him, even if he doesn’t enjoy it as such. As just one example of the devotion to Mangum, the song ‘Oh Comely’ has 154 comments on songmeanigns.com (three others from In the Aeroplane… have over one hundred comments; for comparison The Beatles ‘Let It Be’ has 162).

I believe that part of Mangum performing these songs live is for the pleasure it gives the fans. This sort of utilitarian justification for Mangum’s return to the spotlight is probably met with sufficient personal benefits for Mangum: he gets to play with his old friends again and he puts to rest some of the comparisons to the lost souls of the music world such as Syd Barrett.

But even if we accept the altruistic motive behind the reunion tour, there must be something else that keeps Mangum singing those doomed lyrics (“I know they buried her body with others”). He knows the audience will sing along (“her sister and mother”) as if it were something to be encouraged (“and five hundred families”) and yet still he sings. But not only does he sing; he imbues the words with a rawness that is even fresher than live recordings of the song from its time of release.

Watching Mangum’s face during ‘Oh Comely’ it seems that the audiences inability to transfer their fascination with Mangum to an empathy for Anne Frank is what fuels his performance. The lyrics which follow the verse about the burial of the Frank family may have originally been addressed towards the Nazis, or all racists, or perhaps they were intended to be a darkly ironic comment on the problems of being certain about enemies and hatred:

Know all your enemies, we know who our enemies are,
Know all your enemies, we know who our enemies are.

But in a live context, after grimacing through fans singing reverentially about the genocide at Bergen-Belsen, it is hard not to see these lines directed at the audience. It is not that the audience are Mangum’s enemy in an antagonistic relationship, but more that they are the opposing force that animates his passion to deal with the doom-laden part of ‘Oh Comely’. Let’s just say the relationship is complicated.

Despite the emphasis here on doom, the overall atmosphere of the shows were one of love and reverence. If none of the doom were present it might have felt like Mangum was glossing over the path that took him from In the Aeroplane Over the Sea through to the present day. It is this drop of incredibly powerful doom that flavours the show with a feeling so lacking from other reunion tours.

The final song of each night’s set, ‘Engine’, has been described by Mangum as a children’s song or a lullaby. ‘Engine’ is an outlier in terms of the three moods on offer in this review. It offers resolution for the intensity of the performance akin to an athlete warming down after a training session.

In live recordings from the late ’90s, Mangum referred to it as a song that he wrote which gave him five minutes of happiness in between moments where he was depressed and his life was crumbling. The track is the most optimistic of any Neutral Milk Hotel songs, casting Mangum as the engine that continues despite bearing a great load. It is the opposite of doom, reconciling the predominant spirits of the show. ‘Engine’ is psychedelic in lyric only with a pious pop lacking the darkness in most of his other songs. By the third night I knew that this would definitely be the last song in the set—a lullaby to send the adoring audience into the night.

The only question we might have is what comes next. Has the antagonisms of the tour offered Mangum a new fortitude to create music? Has his reconnection with old friends like Chris Knox and the constant presence of band mates led him to create a new music that might see Neutral Milk Hotel return to the studio? The live shows offered no hint of the future for Jeff Mangum. Most concertgoers appear happy to have seen and sung along to their favourite songs.

Neutral Milk Hotel love New Zealand. As Julien Koster said at a recent show, coming to Auckland “feels like coming home,” Sensing the crowd didn’t fully appreciate that their adoration of the band was returned, Koster repeated himself: “really, it feels like coming home.”

In June I bought tickets to three out of four New Zealand shows by reformed Athens, Georgia cult-favourite Neutral Milk Hotel. I am enough of a fan, like many other Neutral Milk Hotel devotees, that any dig about our fanaticism is considered a complement. Really? I’m a fanatic? More so than others! Oh, I admit it. Apostle? Why not? There aren’t many, if any, other bands I would travel to another city and to see three nights in a row.

Murdoch Stephens is a Wellington writer and publisher for Lawrence and Gibson. He also leads the Doing Our Bit campaign based on the Refugee exhibition/archive.