In 1998 while I was apparently listening to a lot of other things instead, Athens, Georgia based Neutral Milk Hotel released their second album, In the Aeroplane over the Sea. A cult following developed around Aeroplane, and it wound up selling a lot of copies. Soon afterward, the band went on a long hiatus. They have not recorded a note since. Fast forward to 2012: The band started to tour again bringing them to the Ryman on this cold, rainy February night.
I decided to finally check out their legendary record and attend their upcoming live show. My motto has always been, “I’ll see anyone once.” Seeing a band for the first time at the wonderful Ryman always helps ease any unexpected pain. My short take on both the record and show is a simple one: NMH have a pleasant, quirky sound, but they are way too pretentious for me.
The first and most obvious question anyone should ask about this band is, “What in the world are they singing about?” I’ll spare you the lyrics and refer you to some of the song titles listed below such as “The King of Carrot Flowers?” When I posed this question to some fans, I’m told that Aeroplane was somehow inspired by dreams lead singer/songwriter Jeff Mangum had about Holocaust victim Anne Frank. I challenge anyone to show me a meaningful lyrical link.
But, wow, their fans are feverish about these guys! The Ryman crowd of mostly young 30-somethings knew and sang along to every nonsensical lyric all night long! It was like everyone was part of some strange Hobbit-like world that I had unknowingly entered. The band, which included a revolving cast of characters (some from opener Elf Power), were no different. Two of the players sang along to every song as well—but not in the form of backing vocals. They sang off mike as if they too were similarly obsessed with this bizarre record.
A friend of mine saw them earlier in the tour and aptly described them as “looking like a weird bunch of goobers.” I’m sorry that they didn’t allow photos, so I could show you how that was a pretty good description. These guys had a dated hippie look as if they had just picked up their clothes at a local thrift store. Add to that a long-running band moratorium on both shaves and haircuts.
Lead singer Mangum, who was mostly quiet between songs, did take a few moments to reveal his personal uber-hipness. He first made the Ryman ushers useless by instructing everyone to get out of their seats and come up front. He later went through great lengths to insult those who felt a need to take a photo: “I’ll draw you a picture instead.” I guess it’s also cool to do a short show. Besides, when you only have a limited catalog, there are only so many songs to play anyway. I didn’t mind since 80 minutes was long enough for me. I gave them their chance, and now I’m through with these guys.
- Two-Headed Boy (Jeff Mangum solo)
- The Fool
- Holland, 1945
- A Baby for Pree / Grow Into You
- Gardenhead / Leave Me Alone
- Everything Is
- The King of Carrot Flowers, Part One
- The King of Carrot Flowers, Parts Two and Three
- In the Aeroplane Over the Sea
- Ferris Wheel on Fire
- Oh Comely
- Song Against Sex
- Ruby Bulbs
- Snow Song, Part One
- (untitled instrumental)
- Two-Headed Boy, Part Two
Jeff Mangum—Acoustic Guitar and Lead Vocals
Julian Koster—Saw, Banjo and Accordion
several unknown others on an assortment of instruments