Jeff Mangum, Will You Be My Valentine?
by D. Sykes
[Ed. Note: This is not a review. This is a love letter. Happy V-Day, kids--stay safe and love one another.]
That perfect beauty, half-glimpsed, slipping into the fog of a mundane crowd; the black powder smell of the last shot you fired next to your father; the frighteningly clear memory of lights emerging over the crest of the hill as you descend on the last leg of your road trip, at seventeen years, the journey where you came of age. These elusive highway colors, these frequencies heard so loudly so many times that they might never catch hold of your eardrums again. It’s the texture of lost innocence, it is the desolation of acute tinnitus after the best show you ever saw; and beyond all that it’s the desperate attempts to grasp these ephemeral memories, to hold them tight and keep them safe before their beauty and significance are ripped away by the cruel mechanisms of an uncertain world.
Can any of us weave a net wide enough to catch it all? The way I see it, the majority of Jeff Mangum’s work is the sound of that sieve being torn to shreds as the terrible weight of history and love and beauty bear down on these pathetic tools we’ve designed; cheap sackcloth jury-rigged to capture just a small portion of some higher truth. Angels hurtling through space, rebounding off of guitar strings, splattered against the insides of horns and drums and that most immaculate voice; and all of it leading to one perfectly damaged statement, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. In Mangum’s world it’s this destruction of our carefully contrived reality that forces us to evolve as humans. “And now we must pick up every piece of the life we used to love,” indeed.
I’d like to hope that everyone has experienced a work of art that touched them this deeply. I’ve certainly taken that dance a few times, amidst Mark Rothko’s fields of color, David Foster Wallace’s barracks of verbiage, Grant Morrison’s strange visions. There’s something singular, though, about Neutral Milk Hotel, something that seems magnetic to nearly everyone who’s heard it, as long as they carry a functioning soul. Every element of the tragicomic pratfall of human life is represented here, illustrated by the war that bound this planet together but nonetheless sent it tumbling towards the abyss, by the disembodied love between Mangum and Anne Frank, the horrors of lonely trailer parks and persistent psychic wounds, the strangeness of being anything at all.
Just as discovering this music in the first place will often be a defining moment in someone’s life, seeing Mangum perform his songs live was an initiation unto itself. We never thought we’d get to see this. There may have been some suspicion early on that it was a lame cash-grab, like the now-flimsy prophet Zimmerman mumbling his moldy songs from behind the wheel of his 24-karat keyboard. Well, everybody’s gotta eat, but I think Jeff Mangum is sustained by the idea of a world where love is more important than butter and bread.
He pulled that out of us. He got an audience full of Minnesotans—amongst the most trivially repressed of all Americans—to sing along at the State Theatre. He got us out of our seats, calling us to bum-rush the stage for the final few songs. When he took his smartly-chosen encore, the title track of his most widely-recognized record, my friends and I were bellowing of youth and the beauty of the world, swaying arm in arm, as we had done many times before.
Given Mangum’s reputation as a reclusive artist and the obvious emotional torment and vulnerability intrinsic to his music, I was immediately surprised by his graciousness, his lack of pretense, and his conversational attitude. He made the large theater seem as intimate as a campfire, and hearing songs like “Holland 1945” stripped down to a single acoustic guitar and voice made one feel as if one was being drawn deeper into them than ever before (he wisely got that particular tune out of the way right quick—excitable partygoers with hipster-cred-packed iPods have nearly ruined it for me). That Mangum peppered the set with less ubiquitous songs was a treat, but he knew what his audience was there for, and he gave it to us. He was joined later in the set by some of his cohorts—after all, some of these songs are defined by the beauty of their expansive instrumentation. They came to the stage and left just as casually as if they were engaged in a late-night scratch-track recording session or a front-porch jam. It was nevertheless just as exciting to hear Mangum replace horn lines with simple “da da da”s, or to watch him choose the guitar he’d use for the next song. It was like any other night at an old friend’s place, except it was quite possibly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
For some this might read like hyperbole, but it’s not. I’m not shy about admitting that Mangum’s songs are closer to my heart than probably any other creative work I’ve ever experienced. My eyes misting up in the theater, I could see myself laying in bed listening to Aeroplane endlessly after the end of my first romantic relationship—a relationship incidentally guided at an early stage by the same old friend who first introduced me to Neutral Milk Hotel, someone I don’t talk to much anymore but for whom I’ll be eternally grateful for introducing me to two of the great loves of my life. I could see myself celebrating the life of a different friend, one lost to that world beyond this one with which Mangum is so poetically obsessed. We were crowded around the remains of a bottle of Jameson that night, my blurred hands fingering the simple, humble chord changes of the music that had helped to bring us all together in the first place. My legs were dangling over the edge of a tall precipice, singing Mangum’s songs, our songs, the songs of our lost loves, out to the Mississippi river.
But everyone who’s fallen in love with Neutral Milk Hotel has fallen in love with Jeff Mangum, and the memories we share with this music can be as important as memories of families, friends, and lovers. It’s hard not to feel as if you know the man on some deeply personal level, given the confessional, emotionally naked tone of his lyrics. However oblique and abstract they might be, the powerful emotional truths of these songs can punch through our walls and masks with the force of an aerial bombardment, exposing the lost and lonely child within each of us, giving that oft-forgotten inner self a rare glimpse out into the deepest recesses of the people surrounding us, an opportunity to connect on a basic human level. This is something rarely found in even the most celebrated of artistic feats—the intrinsic ability to bring people more closely together.
When one woman in the audience shouted out a request for a date, Mangum responded, in typically witty fashion, with something to the effect of “It’s nothing against you, but I kind of keep to myself.” This elicited a hearty spurt of laughter from the crowd. While I think we’re all pretty sure we’re never going to get too close to this indie poet-laureate, this living legend who seems at some times a ghost wandering through sordid, desperate pasts, and at others a champion of that utopia found only in the union of human hearts, I hope that we’ll at least get to see him around again. Hopefully sometime soon. Happy Valentine’s Day, Jeff. Thank you for bringing more love into the world.
“And when we meet on a cloud, I’ll be laughing out loud, I’ll be laughing with everyone I see.” – Jeff Mangum