Monday, May 19, 2014

Neutral Milk Hotel, Albert Hall Manchester, 18th May 2014 9/10

I suspect I wasn't the only person at Albert Hall last night who can remember the first time I heard the iconic 1998 album In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. Despite its heavy subject matter about death and love, the music magnificently sprang to life again as Jeff Mangum's unmistakable voice intoned Two-Headed Boy. Alone on stage with his acoustic guitar, it seemed almost miraculous that the recluse had found the confidence to perform again after so many years. The stage lighting was dim throughout, which allowed the fading daylight to subtly influence the mood as night fell through the venue's stained glass, the magic reminiscent of late evening outdoor festival sets. Mangum's facial expression was barely visible from under his baseball cap amidst the gloom, but this hardly mattered, given the passion conveyed by his voice. The ecclesiastical Victorian architecture of the venue added to the sense that ghosts were lurking in the background. Mangum claimed In The Aeroplane Over The Sea does not reference a specific religion, but it's certainly heavy with loss.

Much has been written about Neutral Milk Hotel: their classic status has inspired academic theses. There's no doubt that their statue and mystique has grown with a 14 year absence from the stage. The abstract prose is rich in imagery about love and death. Yet, the show was full of vitality, thanks in large part to the five piece band. This was a long way from the first resurfacing of Mangum at Coachella in 2012, when he played a solo show and sounded lost in the vastness of the  desert. Two years later, the set has developed into a kaleidoscopic, psychedelic mix of colour. His multi-instrumentalists moved from one eclectic instrument to another, and the wonderful mix of bass instruments reminded me of Beirut. The drummer Jeremy Barnes deserves particular mention for his energy, and whilst Mangum was relatively static, the other performers danced around the stage. There were of course saws, a banjo was played with a violin bow, bells were rung, accordions squeezed, and horns were resplendent. Scott Spillane's crazy white beard and Elephant 6 Collective Julian Koster's zany outfit added to the surreal feeling, reminding us that circus is another influence on the band.

The audience, as ever, was key to the atmosphere: the band were met by ecstatic applause, and by Holland 1945 they had started to dance, a mosh pit emerging. Inevitably, the songs from Aeroplane inspired most excitement: ranging widely through their two albums and early EPs, it was this final material that was most memorable. I can understand the decision to end with the upbeat, non-album track Engine, but I lamented the lack of Communist Daughter, the song from Aeroplane which inspired the naming of a band . My highpoint was the title song of Aeroplane, a lament for lost youth, which followed the remarkable suite for King of Carrot Flowers. It must have been daunting to reconstruct an album so many have a perfect memory of, but the intricate studio sounds were faithfully recreated. Yet, live, there is an added swagger, and the rhythmic qualities of the marching bands and Bulgarian folk music which inspired Mangum came to the fore. For all the gravity of the subject matter, there was a sense of fun from a band who seemed happy to be on tour again. Talk between songs was brief, but warmly picked up on the crowd's appreciation.

That cracked voice sounded much the same as ever: for all Mangum's reclusiveness, his vocals certainly don't lack conviction. It's an uncompromising sound, not always of beauty, and the psychedelic accompaniment at times recalled experimental classical composers like Reich and Cage, as well as punk. The harmonies may be simple, but the message is universal, taking you on a joyful yet ultimately tragic journey. Aeroplane was famously inspired by a dream about a Jewish Family in World War II, and the poignancy is heart wrenching. Yet there is also an immediacy: like Walt Whitman's, the lyrics are disarmingly direct and personal to British ears . This memorable evening will forever enrich my future appreciation of a great work of art. Mangum may yet surprise us again, but new material seems an unlikely prospect. So Aeroplane stands as a brilliant, one off product of trauma which perhaps surprisingly translates into a thrilling live show.

Set List
  • Two-Headed Boy
  • The Fool
  • Holland 1945
  • A Baby for Pree
  • Gardenhead
  • Everthing Is
  • The King of Carrot Flowers, Part 1
  • The King of Carrot Flowers, Part 2 & 3
  • In the Aeroplane Over the Sea
  • Naomi
  • Ferris Wheel On Fire
  • Oh Comely
  • Song Against Sex
  • Rubby Bulbs
  • Snow Song, Part One
  • Ghost
  • Untitled
  • Two Headed Boy, Part 2
  • Engine

The only girl I've ever loved 
Was born with roses in her eyes 
But then they buried her alive 
One evening 1945 
With just her sister at her side 
And only weeks before the guns 
All came and rained on everyone 
Now she's a little boy in Spain 
Playing pianos filled with flames 
On empty rings around the sun 
All sing to say my dream has come
(Holland, 1945)

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