Neutral Milk Hotel
Cat’s Cradle, Carrboro

Saturday, Feb. 1

He has a chimerical concept of authenticity, wears lots of indifferent plaid and often regards popular and electronic idioms with suspicion: For this certain breed of indie music fan, the 1998 album In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, by the Athens, Ga. band Neutral Milk Hotel, is a sacred text.

An unusual record at the time of its release, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea sounds odder still today. Horns, accordions and psychedelic interludes line the driving guitar playing and alarmingly loud voice of Jeff Mangum. This brassy, woozy sound gives the impression of a klezmer band going mad and trying its hand at indie folk, only to leave its cassette recordings to warp in the sun.

Though it barely made a dent in the public consciousness at the time of its release, Aeroplane steadily became a keystone in the indie canon during the next 15 years. To date, it has reportedly sold more than 300,000 copies, creating an ongoing revenue stream for both Merge and Mangum, who all-but-retired from music following the album’s release. His stature in music now falls somewhere between seminal songwriter and recondite cult leader.

But why did this band and this record become the gold standards, rather than any number of now-forgotten lo-fi surrealist folk albums of the same era?

Mangum’s retreat into seclusion surely helped Aeroplane on its way to cult status, as did its strange but emotionally lucid lyrics, fraught with sexual anxiety and dense with cryptic references to steampunk machines and Anne Frank. The record’s robustly enigmatic quality touched a chord with listeners who would rather feel like active code-breakers than passive consumers. Aeroplane also represents the golden twilight of pre-Internet indie music culture, when it was still the hermetic province of outcasts and nerds. It’s a gorgeous tombstone for a time when we still believed that some music was realer than other music.

In my late teens and early 20s, I was one of those kids who treated his Aeroplane LP like a Gutenberg Bible. But now I’m leaning into my mid 30s with much more catholic tastes. As such, the prospect of seeing the band’s original lineup performing its classic material created mixed feelings of excitement and trepidation. Theoretically, I still love Aeroplane and debut LP On Avery Island, but I haven’t really listened to them in years. Would the me that loves techno and rap still love Neutral Milk Hotel? Or would it inspire the alloyed feeling of affection and embarrassment that comes from looking at a high school yearbook?

On Saturday night, I walked into a sold-out Cat’s Cradle, packed with people who mostly seemed to be my age plus or minus five years. Elf Power was just finishing their set. The Elephant 6 mainstays sounded big and powerful. Unlike the headliners, they had continued recording and road-dogging since their heyday, refining their ornate ’60s-style psychedelic pop. Rather than reconvening as a nostalgia act, they were playing a larger gig than usual.
After Elf Power finished, an announcement prohibited pictures and videos during Neutral Milk Hotel’s set—just as Mangum had requested at his Memorial Hall show in 2012. The appearance of Mangum on anything as banal as a Facebook page wouldn’t suit such a reclusive man of mystery.

But there he was, with the same engineer’s cap and the same lank wings of dark hair, now garnished with a Unabomber beard and a baggy brown ski-lodge sweater. He began to play “The King of Carrot Flowers Pt. One” by himself, his hand raking powerfully across electric-acoustic strings. His simultaneously reedy and strong voice sounded identical to those 15-year-old recordings.

The rest of the band filed onto the stage during the song: There was horn player Scott Spillane, his face framed by an outrageously fake-looking white beard. There was drummer Jeremy Barnes, thundering on the kit, and multi-instrumentalist Julian Koster, with his bowed banjo and accordion and singing saw, so essential to Aeroplane’s atmosphere of alien antiquity. The opener flowed straight into “The King of Carrot Flowers Pts. Two & Three,” with the crowd lustily shouting back the “I love you Jesus Christ” refrains. It started to seem as if Neutral Milk Hotel might intend to simply play through Aeroplane in order, which would have disappointed precisely nobody—especially if they left room to throw in a couple beloved tracks from On Avery Island. They did, with “A Baby for Pree” and a faster, punker-than-usual “Gardenhead/Leave Me Alone,” but not before they broke up the Aeroplane chronology by jumping forward to “Holland, 1945.”

The sound was loud and chaotic, familiar but roughed up. The speedy tempos of some songs made it seem like perhaps Mangum was eager to get it done with, though the band played with what seemed like well-practiced polish and conviction. The horde onstage rushed around frantically between instruments. The un-miked band members mouthed the words along with the same expressions of almost disbelieving ardor that one saw in the audience.

“Thank for you for listening to our music for all these years,” Mangum said at one point, acknowledging the dedication of fans who have had precious little Neutral Milk Hotel to sustain them.

Tilting my head one way, Neutral Milk Hotel’s return to the stage made for a very good concert. The band played with energy and skill, and the set-list mostly reflected what people had come to hear. The songs retained their eerie power.

But tilting my head slightly the other way, it was just, well, a concert, one whose quality seemed unavoidably disproportionate to its rapt, almost-prayerful reception. For such a beloved vocalist, Mangum has an almost fantastically ugly voice, which he either pinches off through his nose or blasts out in a floodlight glare. By night’s end, I had grown weary of his wide-open mouth shouting at me, flat and loud and with no vibrato.

Older now, I suppose I could hear the music for what it was, even as it recreated 15-year-old gestures with sepia-toned photographic accuracy.