Twenty years ago, together with about 150 others, I attended a concert in a small pub in Collingwood. The headline act stumbled onto the stage completely shrouded in darkness. We could barely see him. He mumbled incomprehensively. The mumbling evolved into a dirge. The dirge became a song and four minutes later, as it finished, we stood there in shocked silence. I remember that silence; only broken by a barman replacing glasses at the bar. We were struck dumb by watching something with a breathtaking beauty, powered by a voice that soared over a frightening number of octaves. We were watching Jeff Buckley.
On Saturday night, I was reminded of that experience at the Forum in Melbourne. As soon as Jeff Mangum, the charismatic leader, singer and songwriter of Neutral Milk Hotel walked onto the stage my first response was shock. He was unrecognisable. His appearance did not ring true from the images of him from years ago when the band had last extensively performed.
By the end of the 90s this already obscure American indie band had disappeared completely, leaving behind a modest catalogue of two albums and a smattering of other recordings. Their second (and final) album, 1998′s In The Aeroplane Over The Sea, has since been recognised as something of a masterpiece and has generated sales of 300,000. They broke up shortly after its release and Mangum is reported to have had a nervous breakdown. They hadn’t toured Australia until this year after deciding to reunite in late 2012 – this was the last show of their four show east coast swing hatched after the collapse of the Harvest Festival.
Throughout Saturday night’s performance, Mangum’s face hid behind a lot of hair and a small, military-style cap. His eyes could not be seen. At first, we thought he might be a roadie.
Then the hirsute, wooly man picked up a guitar, began to play and sing. All hell broke loose along my spine and tears filled my eyes.
As the song intensified, the crowd joined in, belting out in unison:
“And your mom would stick a fork right into daddy’s shoulder
And dad would throw the garbage all across the floor
As we would lay and learn what each other’s bodies were for”
He was joined by an extraordinary band of six others. A beautiful chaos ensued.
That first song, King of Carrot Flowers Part 1, also featured trumpet (Scott Spillane), French horn and an accordion (Julian Kostner) duelling with a squeeze box. For the rest of the night, band members worked promiscuously across different instruments, including a saw, a moog synthesiser and a banjo (all of which were played by the hyperkinetic, trippy Kostner). The drummer, Jeremy Barnes, also moved to the accordion. Kostner also played bass.
Over the next two hours, including two encores, the band played much of their back catalogue including almost the entirety of In The Aeroplane Over The Sea.
There are only three bands in my musical journey that have forged a sound that is utterly unique. They came along encumbered by their own influences, but nonetheless broke the mould and produced something unlike anything before. Those bands are The Pixies, The Laughing Clowns and Neutral Milk Hotel.
What distinguishes Mangum and co from those others, and indeed just about everyone else, is the lyrics; extraordinarily beautiful, simple, complex, dark and at times, obscure; the product of a prodigious, disturbed imagination. He is a poet of sorts. Sex and death are never far away in a land where “Semen stains the mountaintop” (from the song Oh Comely).
In The Aeroplane Over The Sea‘s title track is said to be inspired by The Diary of Anne Frank.
“And one day we will die
And our ashes will fly from the aeroplane over the sea
But for now we are young
Let us lay in the sun
And count every beautiful thing we can see”.
What was made plain at the Forum last weekend is that Neutral Milk Hotel has found a new, young and ecstatic audience. Many were small kids when they broke up. They have since made the discovery, spent hours in their bedrooms, memorising every word and nuance of that record. On Saturday night, they found full voice, singing virtually the entire album with Mangum. It could have been off-putting but it wasn’t. It was both touching and ultimately infectious. At one point, I unexpectedly found myself, along with several thousand folkies, punks and hipsters, singing with all my heart:
“I love you Jesus Christ,
Jesus Christ I love you,
Yes I do…..”
I have not yet heard or seen an accurate description of Neutral Milk Hotel’s music. I will take a stab and describe it as moving from a quiet, folk-inspired sound through to surreal circus anthems and covers everything in between.
And for any of you who are thinking that it might be an idea to reserve the haunting stream of consciousness that is Oh Comely at your funeral, think again. That idea is already taken.
Image Credit: Crikey
This review originally appeared on the Crikey Website