Back in March, I went to see Jeff Mangum play at the Union Chapel in North London. This was a big and slightly surreal moment for me, because Mangum’s music – he was the songwriter of the band Neutral Milk Hotel
– has been one of my most persistent influences. Their defining album, In the Aeroplane over the Sea
, is an almost hyperbole-proof tour de force which was released quietly in 1998 and has continued to accrue fans ever since, despite the fact that the band itself split up a few months after releasing it.
It’s that last detail which made the prospect of this concert so appealing. My whole experience of songwriting, from learning the guitar (Mangum’s were amongst the first songs I figured out how to play), my earliest compositions, appearing live for the first time, and as a continuing reference point for how lyrics should be written (every time I sit down to write is a salutary lesson that NMH lyrics can’t be imitated), I’ve been deeply informed by somebody whom I never expected to see play live; who was living a reclusive existence and had said publicly that he was no longer interested in making music.
It was sobering to think, as Mangum took the stage, that he hadn’t written a song in the time I’ve written all of mine; that despite him being an absolute icon of mine, he’s probably played significantly fewer shows than I have. And at first, it was difficult to understand that the guy in front of me was the same guy who had written these completely iconic tunes. I think the reason for that is because there’d been no change from the album, really – he was playing everything acoustically, but there was none of the variation you’d normally expect from seeing a big band live. No new material. No changes in the old material. It was precise, it was unnerving; time had stopped thirteen years previously. It felt more like watching a very good tribute act.
This feeling, as I say, lasted for the first few songs, which included ‘Two-Headed Boy Pt 2’ and ‘Holland, 1945’. I was about to describe those as “two of my favourites”, but you can’t really have favourite NMH songs because they’re all so incredible – anyway, I was having a great time, but I wasn’t being pushed into the stratosphere by being within a few meters of one of my heroes, the way I’d perhaps expected. He was very visibly nervous – unsure of himself, out of practice, even. And I was nervous for him: he has a stiff reputation to live up to, and not one he asked for. Aeroplane‘s popularity has all happened since his last gig, I realised – he may well never have played to a crowd this size before. And it was a classic London crowd, from which every emotional response had to be drawn as water from stone; no-one claps until they see that everyone else is clapping, everyone listens not in ‘rapt’ silence but in ‘cool’ silence, waiting, judging, the stereotype of the stiff-upper-lipped anally-retentive Brit. Mangum tried to make us all sing along to ‘King of Carrot Flowers’, and you can bet that everyone knew the words, but the crowd was audibly lacklustre in a way which he must have found profoundly disconcerting (aside: if the person who I later saw on an internet forum complaining about the people near him who sang along too loudly happens to be reading this – yes, it’s possible you’re talking about me; and no, I don’t apologise, you are an asshole).
Anyway, for me the change came with ‘Oh, Comely’, which, if you don’t know it, is the 8-minute solo acoustic masterpiece which gives the record about 60% of its zing and was recorded in one take (if you turn up the volume right at the end, you can hear one of the brass players shouting ‘Holy Shit!’ in response). Since Mangum was wobbly and obviously shaken by the crowd’s intractability, I was worried he wouldn’t manage to repeat the performance. It probably was genuinely a moment where the concert could have tipped one of two ways, but suddenly it happened, and there were tears in my eyes, and it felt uncannily like floating, and this, this, is why I started making music. He went from there into ‘Ghost’, and since he didn’t have a kit drummer with him the whole crowd obligingly provided the song’s signature drum rhythm on the backs of the chapel’s pews. Suddenly the London-cool-haze was dispelled, and by the time the ad-hoc mariachi band emerged from the back of the hall to play out with the instrumental ‘The Fool’ I needed scraping off the ceiling with one of those special long spatulas.
The question which obsviously remains – and which is, to an extent, impossible to answer properly – is this: did this concert rate as a performance per se, or was it only my (our) investment in (and knowledge of) the songs, coupled with that compelling mixture of innocence and experience which he represented on stage, which made it so electrifying? In other words, is Mangum’s continuing appeal based on produgious talent, or is it, at this point, more to do with some kind of empathic zeitgeist?
I’ll leave that one in the air, but another effect of the concert was to make me think about where the influence of Mangum (among others) has left me (and FaceOmeter). Mangum was a year older than I am now when he put out Aeroplane. I don’t – and can’t, reasonably – aspire to that kind of achievement. But the idea of writing something which will help make somebody else pick up a pen, and which might provide them with inspiration along the way, is, I think, a worthy goal for any songwriter. This blog goes back eight years, and I’ve changed a lot in that time (as a quick scan will testify), but you’ll see me mentioning Aeroplane at a fairly consistent rate throughout. In all the different phases of my musical life so far, it’s always been worth turning to Mangum for help and advice, and the album never lets me down – it’s rich, dense, and always seems to have new ideas. It’s Mangum’s masterpiece – the apogee of his creative achievement, which has moved and affected hundreds of thousands. My masterpiece won’t be as good, but at least I haven’t yet had the experience, as Mangum surely has, of realising over a long decade that I’ve already written it. He’s a great talent, and I hope he finds something awesome to do next. I, meanwhile, as always when I put that record on, have something to aim for.
By the way, I couldn’t have asked for a better venue than the Union Chapel to see Mr. Mangum strut his stuff in. Atmospheric and warm, with tremendously sound, incredible lighting, and (this is important) a little booth selling cups of hot chocolate and bags of walkers crisps at sensible prices. It was a satisfying evening on all levels of physical and mental experience! I’ve seen some other shows at the Union Chapel too – most memorably This Is The Kit back in 2010 – and you should check them out if you’re in London and haven’t already.