Jan. 31, 2013
It's not odd for an audience to sing along with a performer and know all of the words. It's not particularly notable when said performer strums his acoustic guitar in deep concentration while handing over entire verses and choruses to the crowd. It is unusual when the the sing-along lyrics are about tomatoes, Anne Frank and two-headed boys, and include couplets like: "Your father made fetuses with flesh licking ladies, While you and your mother were asleep in the trailer park."
Whatever "cult figure" means in this day and age, Jeff Mangum is it, and judging by the sold-out show at the Neighborhood Theatre on Jan. 31, 2013, he commands a large and devoted following. The best thumbnail sketch of Mangum is the title of his former band Neutral Milk Hotel's most cherished LP, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. That title - poetic, evocative and deliberately old fashioned - points to Mangum's enigmatic and elusive appeal. A kind of alt-folk rock J. D. Salinger, Mangum disbanded Neutral Milk Hotel after its break-out 1998 LP and vanished. Resurfacing in 2001 to release some live material and a collection of Bulgarian field recordings, Mangum has only re-emerged in the past few years to play a series of solo acoustic dates.
Mangum lived up to his mystique by playing it down. Ambling onstage in flannel shirt and a cap that permanently shaded his eyes, Mangum sat down next to a rack of acoustic guitars. The dull chatter which persisted under opener Tall Firs' set of spare alt-folk stopped cold. Opening with "Two Headed Boy," Mangum played with precision and fire, pausing between songs to chat with the packed hall like he was in his living room. He also sang his heart out.
Love it, hate it or just discovering it, you have to admit that Mangum's voice can fill any room. Loud and slightly nasal like Harry Chapin's, Mangum's singing was so emotive that it short-circuited the brain's logic centers and shot straight for the soul. Mangum's repertoire derived its power as much from performance as from the simply structured songs. The spare arrangements favored more melodic numbers like "The King of Carrot Flowers" or barn burners like "Oh Sister," where Mangum's focused strumming recalled Billy Bragg's fiery attack.
For the uninitiated, it takes a while to unpack the meaning, if not the emotion, at Mangum's core. "Oh Comely", a stand-out at last night's show, illustrates the contradiction at the heart of his appeal. On one hand, the lyrics' organic squishy surrealism is self-contained and deeply eccentric. At the same time, the melody and Mangum's commitment to his message cut straight to the heart, addressing universal uncertainty and yearning. The bad acid Lewis Carroll imagery should put the listener at an absurdist remove, but just the opposite happens.
The method to Mangum's madness may defy analysis, but you can't deny its effectiveness. Clearly, the crowd at the Neighborhood had attained the inner circle, singing along unselfconsciously with ringmaster Mangum. At one point, someone shouted, "We love you!" "Sonically!" a woman added. Mangum pondered this with a slight smile.
"Did you say sonically?" he queried. Then Mangum nodded before leaning over his guitar. "That sounds fair."