By Chad Swiatecki
Editor’s note: This article was originally published February 19, 2014
The law of supply and demand us that scarcity breeds desire. Put another way, we most want that which has left, long after it has left us.
A thought experiment: if Neutral Milk Hotel had continued on as an acclaimed and beloved indie pop act heading into the 21st century, chances are they’d be in 800-capacity rooms roughly the size of the Mohawk and eeking out 6.7 ratings for follow-up albums on Pitchfork while everyone looked back fondly and awaited the 10th, 15th and 20th anniversary deluxe editions of 1998’s adored "In The Aeroplane Over The Sea."
Not that they’d be any less of a band, but the continued presence of NMH front man Jeff Mangum in the day-to-day music news/tour/review cycle would’ve robbed the band of the cult "what ever happened to them?" mystique that accrued over a decade while Mangum became indie rock’s J.D. Salinger, only popping up occasionally for cameos at friends’ gigs or doing field recordings at Bulgarian folk music festivals. To say Mangum was off in his own island was a massive understatement, with many wondering if he’d ever make it back to the musical mainland.
No telling what brought him back ashore but Neutral Milk Hotel’s two sold-out nights at ACL Live were as definitive as sign as could be needed that Mangum and his band are back, as an ongoing touring concern if not a producer of music made after the Clinton family’s departure from the White House.
Now back on the road for something like a year, the heavily bearded Mangum showed a comfort level and confidence in front of crowds, ripping into the arresting first two tracks of "Aeroplane" ("King Of Carrot Flowers, Part 1" and its sequels "Parts 2 and 3") with no apology or need to justify his absence.
With only two full-length albums in circulation the 80 or so minutes were easy to roadmap, in at the least the broadest strokes. You had the singular opus of "Holland, 1945," both parts of "Two-Headed Boy," the accelerated desire of "Ghost" (though no accompanying run through "The Penny Arcade In California") and a handful of tracks from debut album "On Avery Island."
Held up to the present it’s hard to know how to judge Mangum’s work in living sound and color after most folks thought they’d never get a chance to do such a thing. Given that, it’s easy to be reverential to a fault and bestow genius status on someone who put out an inspired and well-crafted batch of songs and then had a fortunately timed borderline nervous breakdown that wound up turning him into a generational totem.
Given how we like to build up and rip down our cultural heroes these days you’ve got to give Mangum credit for, purposely or not, short circuiting the acclaim/downfall/redemption script and avoiding a decade-plus of middling material and waning fan interest.
Those new songs will have to arrive sometime soon if Neutral Milk Hotel is to maintain anything near its current relevance (you can only cut the line once) but for now they’re something of a rarity; a nostalgia act for the raised-on-Napster set.