Merge 25 Day 4: Neutral Milk Hotel, Caribou, Teenage Fanclub, Bob Mould, Mikal Cronin, Ex Hex, The Love Language, Vertical Scratchers
Cat’s Cradle Parking Lot, Carrboro
Saturday, July 26, 2014

Jeff Mangum wants your money, and he’d like your memory, too. On Saturday evening, as the sun began to settle on the fourth and final day of Merge Records’ 25th anniversary festival, the day’s emcee, comedian Margaret Cho, stepped onstage to announce that there would be no pictures during the next set. Mangum, she explained, didn’t want his photo taken, so she offered, in exchange, poses of her tattooed ass, so long as onlookers had the gumption to make them their social media avatars. But Mangum, she said, was off-limits; his concert with his reunited band, Neutral Milk Hotel, was for those in attendance only, not Instagram friends in distant locales.

That precious declaration wasn’t exactly news to those who had spent their Saturday roasting on the black asphalt of the Cat’s Cradle parking lot while standing in front of a large, temporary stage. Festival organizers had affixed a dozen signs to poles throughout the makeshift venue, asking that the artist’s right to privacy be respected and that the band’s photo not be taken. Neutral Milk Hotel has been touring with this policy for a while now; two weeks ago, in Chicago, the massive video screens that flank the stage at the Pitchfork Music Festival were turned off before the band performed. Stage lights were kept at a minimum, and photos were banned there, too.

Saturday’s show was different, of course. This one was a celebration of Merge, an event where long-winded performers like the Mountain Goats were content with eight-song sets and acts like The Clientele, Rock*A*Teens and Teenage Fanclub agreed to make rather rare appearances for the label that put some faith and capital behind them long ago. Years before the cult of the hermetic Mangum was legion enough to make Neutral Milk Hotel’s In The Aeroplane Over the Sea one of indie rock’s best sellers, Merge had invested in his twisted, strange and scarred hybrid of folk, punk and chamber pop. As Wye Oak’s Jenn Wasner put it on Friday, she owed her career to such faith.

Mangum’s appearance at Merge 25—his first show at any of Merge’s five anniversaries—represented a triumph, then, a real-life manifestation of the slow payoffs that belief in art can have. It was the return of the prodigal who, in many ways, helped turn Merge into the revered industry bellwether it is in 2014.

So, maybe Merge’s early and unwavering allegiance to Neutral Milk Hotel would earn their hometown crowd an exemption?

Alas, before the bearded-and-capped Mangum walked onstage, the lights shifted to a garish light indigo, as though to camouflage Neutral Milk Hotel inside the fading day. Just a few songs in, the band asked that the remaining lights at the front of the stage be cut off so that they could see the faces of the people to whom they were playing. The move obviated the potential for a good photo—that is if you dared violate the restriction, enforced by a pack of eager yellow-shirted security guards lacing through the crowd. It also made Mangum and his band difficult to see; when he reached back for those great big yelps of his—which he hit, almost without fail or age—you couldn’t see the feeling or the trace the origin of the strident sound you were hearing. It was like watching a high-definition film on an early color television, and paying a premium for the experience.

I’ve seen a half-dozen explanations for Mangum’s photographic moratorium, from the ghoulish glow that cell phones cast on people’s faces (It was an outdoor show that started around twilight…) to the on-stage distraction that it presents (Can you tweet or text while watching Neutral Milk Hotel? Is this like driving?). None of these explanations suggest that photos are against Mangum’s religion, or that they somehow consume part of his soul—too bad, as that’s the only reason that seems to not be baldly cynical and capitalist.

The reason, I think, is that Mangum is attempting to preserve the same legacy of an enigma that turned into a bankable career during his prolonged absence; in an age of instant information and updates, where what you had for breakfast becomes part of your digital identity, can you actually prove that you saw Neutral Milk Hotel without telling and showing your friends? That kind of self-advertising and personalized content creation can be an unsettling aspect of modern life, sure, but that’s not Mangum’s decision to make for people who waited a dozen years to see him—and paid a lot of money and withstood a lot of miserable heat and humidity to celebrate his relationship with Merge.

Mangum’s set was sloppy and messy and fine and nothing if not a memory tickler, a reminder of the myriad connections people have made with his music in the almost two decades since he released a new record. But the unexpected and unfortunate part of that exchange is that he’s dictating how those who actively fund him can interact with their own nostalgia, the exact thing he’s been preying on and profiting from for several touring years now. Mangum’s reluctance to be photographed seems less like a savior complex or a production concern than a brilliant financial ruse: If you can’t preserve this experience, then goddammit, you will have to pay for it again and again and again. (Neutral Milk Hotel played inside at the Cat’s Cradle on February 1, 2014, almost two years to the date after playing solo at the nearby Memorial Hall.)

At least the rest of the afternoon didn’t erect such arbitrary, asinine parameters between the bands and the fans. This was a big indie rock show in a former grocery store parking lot, and it often felt just like that in the best ways. Mikal Cronin’s set was louche and languid, his guitar-rock sizzling against the blacktop. And Ex Hex was lean and angular, the three-piece’s frantic rhythms bobbing and weaving against acerbic harmonies and slanted guitars. Backed by Jason Narducy and Jon Wurster, Bob Mould barked and barreled his way through his hour, unfazed by the heat or the river of sweat running from his scalp and onto his guitar. (The backup vocals from Cho on two songs helped neither the trio’s otherwise no-frills sound nor her valuation as an emcee worth minding too much.)

And just before Neutral Milk Hotel, Caribou—the great electronic outlier of the whole weekend—was perfect and perfectly timed, the four-piece’s complicated rhythms and tidal melodies washing over the crowd in bright pastels just as the sun began its slow fade. That moment was, for me, the true finale of Merge 25, the embodiment of a label that’s risen above a fray of industry trends and faux-rock-star demands more often than not to build a remarkable quarter-century of history.

So, sorry, Jeff: Caribou’s moment was a remarkable parting snapshot of a mostly incredible weekend, and your photo surfaced several times on the Internet, anyway.