Oh Comely: Watching Neutral Milk Hotel in the 21st Century
On Friday February 8, I had the opportunity to see Neutral Milk Hotel at their second of two sold out performances at Chicago’s Riviera Theater. I had been eagerly anticipating this concert since I bought my ticket six months ago—but for some in the audience, I imagine they had been waiting for this show since Jeff Mangum & Friends put out their last album in 1998.
Neutral Milk Hotel, legends of the indie world, were only active between 1989 and 1999, releasing just two studio albums, On Avery Island and In The Aeroplane Over The Sea in 1996 and 1998, respectively. The latter was critically successful and eventually did well commercially, but shortly after the album release the band broke up, citing frustration in dealing with the music press and eventually a nervous breakdown of lead singer Jeff Mangum.
In 1998, when Neutral Milk Hotel was releasing a concept album about Anne Frank, I was struggling with the fact that I was the only kid in first grade who wore glasses. So the release of one of my now-favorite albums, and subsequent break up of the band, was not really on my radar at the time.
And for a good portion of the audience present on Friday, I’m sure it wasn’t on their radars either. While the crowd at The Riviera may have skewed a bit older than your average hip indie band, I’m certainly not claiming that a millennial1 attending a Neutral Milk Hotel concert is any kind of anomaly or oddity—April Ludgate of Parks & Recreation has made the ‘disaffected 21-year-old who loves Jeff Mangum’ a cultural touchstone. However, I couldn’t help but thinking during the show that I was just an imposter in this world, not part of the Old Guard of fans who had loved this band since the early ‘90s and never thought they would see Jeff Mangum on stage again with Scott Spilllane, Jeremy Barnes, and Julian Koster. Maybe I’m romanticizing the fandom, but no matter how much I love Neutral Milk Hotel, these older fans have to love it more, right? Was I just taking up the space of someone who would have really appreciated this show?
For me, Neutral Milk Hotel reminds me of a time when I was first figuring out what music meant to me. Discovering a band on your own was a certain kind of rush that made you feel like you were curating some sort of good taste for yourself. When 15- or 16-year-old me stumbled upon Neutral Milk Hotel—and I imagine this was a similar experience for many of their other millennial2 fans—they were just ‘out there’ waiting to be discovered, not featured in an emotional TV finale or out promoting an anniversary release of their albums. It was exciting to come to this band, which sounded like nothing I had ever heard before, all on my own and then realize I had tapped into one of the most renowned bands in the indie scene.
So maybe I had just as profound an experience at the concert as a fan who had been passing around the 1994 EP Everything Is when it was first released. I certainly felt an emotional reaction the moment Mangum walked on stage and started strumming the opening notes of “King of Carrot Flowers” and could barely contain my incredulity at the vocal perfection of “Oh Comely.” But every once in a while, like when I had the urge to pull out my smart phone to take a picture (I resisted, upon Jeff Mangum’s request to the crowd), I would get this feeling that my experience of being a Neutral Milk Hotel fan was a lot different for someone a generation older than me.
But I think the best argument for not being concerned with how long I’ve been a fan, or not feeling like I’m co-opting an older generation’s popular culture, came from Jeff Mangum himself, who after more than a decade not playing with his band mates, came out on stage and sounded as if he had never left. Every note was impeccable, Mangum’s voice crystal clear, each entrance, exit, and instrument change expertly rehearsed. With music so timeless and showing no signs of age, perhaps Neutral Milk Hotel is the perfect type of band that can mean the world to both a 40-year-old dad and a 21-year-old millennial3 in a way I don’t think many other artists can.