For Jeff Mangum, a Return From Silence

I was first turned onto Neutral Milk Hotel in 1999. I was a fledgling Californian and one of my finest East Coast friends sent me the In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. It hit me like a ton of bricks one day in Tahoe while I was delivering pizzas and the snow was thick on the roads and in the clouds. “Oh Comely” was playing on repeat at volumes reserved for Sabbath and it all struck at once: the fragile but potent voice, shaky, dynamic and pushed to the breaking point; the dark and abstract poetry, tangled, rich and dense; the sparse haunting sharpness of a lone acoustic guitar and voice.

“Soft silly music is meaningful magical
the movements were beautiful all in your ovaries
All of them milking with green fleshy flowers
While powerful pistons were sugary sweet machines.”

It was some new perfection with the infectiousness of pop and the dissonance of the avant garde in perfect balance.

I delivered pizzas that whole winter and the CD never left my player. Their second record unfolds like one long, thought-out song. It is folk, pop, rock, punk, a New Orleans funeral procession moves through, singing saws sigh, accordions hum and roar, triumphant trumpets moan and wail and with all this happening in the course of 39 minutes, it never sounds like anything other than itself. It is seamless within its changes.
Naturally when an album hits straight to the soul like that, one’s first response is to ferret out the band live and see the towering personas you’ve built bleed sound beneath the red lights of the stage. But I had missed my window -- with two records out and thunderous momentum behind them, lead singer/songwriter Jeff Mangum stepped away into a decade-plus of silence.
Behind the silence the momentum swelled. Records sold more and more. Whispers were amplified and the name became somewhat of a legend. And the silence continued. After many years the hush was finally interrupted: a backing vocal here, a drum credit there, a performance in New Zealand, some scattered performances in 2008 and, in 2011, a short tour. Jeff Mangum was back on the stage. And after 13 years of listening I had the opportunity to catch one of the 2012 shows.

It was at the Orpheum Theatre in Los Angeles. The stage was simple: a stool, a voice and an acoustic guitar. And in this age of hyper-technology, over-production and excess, the performance reminded me of the potency of a song. The minimalism was filling, there was nothing missing and it was completely enthralling. The crowd harnessed the same silence that Mangum held for 13 years, owned by every word, captives to the strum.

On Tuesday, March 26, Mangum comes to Spreckels. Find a way to be there, seated with baited breath as the lights go dim and you are reminded just how much music can make you feel.

Alfred Howard writes lyrics for the Heavy Guilt and the Black Sands. He also writes music reviews for Owl and Bear.

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