A musician named Jeff Mangum will play a live, acoustic solo performance on Tuesday, April 2, at the Lensic in Santa Fe. Within five minutes of tickets going on sale, I had bought mine and—despite a belief in moral relativism—it seems obvious that doing so was objectively right.
Mangum was a founding member of the Elephant 6 Recording Company: a loose, initially-Denver-based collective of musicians and bands who shared a love of classic psychedelic pop. "The Elephant 6 Recording Company re-opens our doors and windows ...”—says the characteristically positive liner notes of an album bearing the group's logo—“and invites the world ... [to] join together with your friends and make something special, something meaningful, something to remember when you are old." The collective has spawned acts as diverse as The Apples in Stereo, Elf Power, of Montreal, The Olivia Tremor Control … and Neutral Milk Hotel.
For much of the mid-’90s, Jeff Mangum was Neutral Milk Hotel—or, perhaps more accurately, Neutral Milk Hotel was Jeff Mangum, along with whoever else he happened to be playing with. Recording under that name, Mangum released a series of demo cassettes; a four-song EP, “Everything Is,” in ’94; and an album, On Avery Island, in ’96. His sound was scuzzy and warm, shambling and propulsive, wild and melodic. His production was lo-fi but meticulous, and his instrumentation embraced a crafted chaos of guitar, drums, densely fuzzy bass, bells, horns, keyboards, xylophones and more. It was his vocals, however, that would make a listener really sit up and take notice—an untrained and inimitable howl, high and rough, rising from the almost-conversational up to thrillingly disconcerting levels of intensity. His voice was a force—it is a force—and one of the most challenging but emotionally resonant voices in modern music.
Released by Merge Records, On Avery Island was justifiably met with critical success, after which Mangum assembled a full band with whom he could tour and promote the release; the line-up included Mangum on guitar, vocals and other instruments; Scott Spillane on horns; Julian Koster, now of The Music Tapes, on organ; and Albuquerque’s own Jeremy Barnes, now of A Hawk and a Hacksaw, on drums. They also recorded an album, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea—an epic work of layered acoustic and electric instrumentation and a razor-filled tornado of folk, rock and psychedelia—an eclectic but cohesive concept album that takes The Diary of Anne Frank deep into realms of troubling surrealism and religious ecstasy. “How strange it is to be anything at all!” sings Mangum, and that’s a feeling that pervades the entire album—a feeling of awe, concern and joy.
In the Aeroplane is one of my all-time favorites, and I’m not alone. To date, it has sold more than 300,000 copies, and it keeps selling. CMJ called it “a true lo-fi pop landmark.” Pitchfork gave its 2004 re-issue an unheard-of 10.0, its highest rating. Magnet named it the best album of the '90s. Kim Cooper wrote an entire book about it. I once introduced it to a friend whose favorite musician is Chopin, and to another whose favorite is Iron Maiden, and both ended up loving it for its intensity and its emotion. (Listen to “Holland 1945,” “Two-Headed Boy,” or “Ghost,” and see if it’s for you, as well.)
After that release, it seemed as if Neutral Milk Hotel could only grow more successful. R.E.M. wanted to tour with them. Fans clamored for more. Their reputation increased, and with it came the pressures of fame, pressures Mangum was unwilling or unable to engage. The band unofficially disbanded, and Mangum retreated into years of private life. The move was a disappointment to fans, but listen to the music and it makes sense. These are songs of uncensored emotion pushed to its limits—of raw art that could only be born through extreme artistic sensitivity—and expecting someone to do that while being a product-delivering businessperson seems kind of unreasonable.
Now, for whatever (fortunate) reason, Mangum is back—touring the country playing acoustic solo shows, and turning theaters into unplanned 1,000-person sing-alongs—and he’s coming to the Lensic. Listen to In the Aeroplane, and you’ll hear songs where all other instruments gradually fall out, where nothing remains but shining guitar chords and his sublime voice, where those chords and that voice are so full you might find it hard to believe they’re unaccompanied. I imagine that’s a bit like how this show might feel.