Neutral Milk Hotel, Albert Hall, Manchester, May 17th & 18th
Like many people I came to Neutral Milk Hotel late; way after they had ceased to be a going concern. I think I picked In The Aeroplane Over the Sea up in Fopp because I liked the sleeve. It was a few weeks later when I got round to listening to it in the car. That CD remained in my car on repeat for the next three months, working it’s magic on me. I fell hard.
It can be a tough listen for the uninitiated, but once it finds it’s way into the ancient primeval part of your brain it’s difficult to shift. It’s dense poetic lyrics, part adolescent sexual fantasy, part twisted body horror, all watched over by the ghost of Anne Frank and sang with a voice teetering on the edge of complete abandon. Set against a musical background almost steampunk in it’s oddness; fuzzy acoustic guitars, singing saws, esoteric brass and even bagpipes, all meshing together to form something strange and beautiful. It’s difficult to put a finger on it, but I react to this album the same way I react to a Rothko painting; a pure unfiltered emotional response. It’s sad and melancholic, sometimes almost revelling in it’s own sense of disconnectedness…. But then we all feel like that sometimes, don’t we?
After a bit of online research I came to realise that NMH were a long defunct outfit, and their singer/songwriter Jeff Mangum was rumoured to be a reclusive almost hobo-like character, homeless and sleeping on people’s floors. It seemed unlikely I would ever get to see him in the flesh. So when I saw he was curating ATP in 2012, it was a done deal, I had to be there. I have to say it is my favourite festival experience, the Elephant 6 crowd were all warm and enthusiastic and made it a completely welcoming experience.
There was however one thing which irked me. Jeff played two sets that weekend. The first, on the Friday, was wonderful, haunting, emotional and euphoric. It left me feeling like I’d been through intensive psycho-therapy… A bit bruised but ultimately happier. There was however huge anticipation about the Sunday evening; a full band revival surely? Sadly that wasn’t to be, it was Jeff again, solo. Amazing once again, but I couldn’t help feeling a little cheated. Would I ever get to see Neutral Milk Hotel the band?
On hearing that Neutral Milk Hotel had announced some US dates, and would be playing some of the big European festivals, I was understandably itching for news of further dates. When the word came out that they would be playing a limited number of UK appearances, well the anticipation was desperate. We were worrying for days prior to the tickets going on sale that we wouldn’t get any. Because in the minds of the faithful they are bigger than Springsteen, rather than a tiny little cult band. So after all the waiting, for two nights in Manchester, I finally get to see the band I had been desperate to see for so long.
First a word about the venue, Albert Hall, Manchester. A Wesleyan chapel, abandoned for many years, hidden away upstairs above what was once Brannigans nightclub. Beautiful tall stained glass windows along each side and across its vaulted ceiling, a broad sweeping balcony and high stage in the shadow of an amazing pipe organ, I could not have picked a more appropriate venue.
Being typically English, I tend not to show great excitement at things, preferring restraint to obvious ebullience. But I confess waiting for the band to come on stage, my heart was beating faster. At the appointed time Jeff Mangum stumbled onto the stage; long beard, peaked cap and army surplus coat, he bore a closer resemblance to an Ozarks meth runner than a rock star. He didn’t say much, just began to strum this first simple chords of The King of Carrot Flowers Pt 1, and as his voice stretched out into the darkness for the first time I knew this would be everything I had hoped it would be.
Out of the wings the rest of the band crept onto the stage, picking up archaic instruments and allowing the cacophony to build as they kicked into Pt 2. Hearing a crowd of 2000 people singing ‘I Love you Jesus Christ!’ can be an odd experience for an atheist like myself, but by this time I was already locked into Jeff’s fantastical world. The band are the essence of anti-rock star, anti-image, looking like they had strayed in from a homeless shelter or another dimension. The bear-like Scott Spillaine with his Father Christmas beard, blasting beautiful haunting sounds for an array of ancient brass instruments. The man-child Julian Koster bouncing around in his bibbity bobbity hat, wrenching thunderous noises from his bass, and his singing saws all terrifying and sad. Behind the drums Jeremy Barnes, extravagant of moustache, stroking the drums, sometimes with the sensitivity of a jazz drummer, and sometimes like Thor in a bad mood.
No new material, but they do work their way through a mix of songs from On Avery Island and In the Aeroplane Over The Sea, filling them with fresh cacophonous fizzy energy. Holland 1945 is raucous and acoustically punky, Gardenhead is weird and arty, Two-headed Boy breaks my heart in a million pieces. The rest of the band leave the stage as Jeff strums the sad chords of Oh Comely. It’s dense impenetrable lyrics, full of foetuses and sugary sweet machines. It’s the poetry, the sheer joy in the sound of words that gets me as I close my eyes and submit to the emotion of it.
The main set finishes with Snow Song Pt 1, all drones and noise, interspersed with flashes of melody and crazy jazzbo drumming from Jeremy. Then quietly they troop back to the wings as we whoop and cheer, and try to catch our collective breath. After a short break they return for the final few songs; a carnivalesque Ghost and a Two Headed Boy Pt 2. Finishing with the beautiful nursery rhyme that is Engine they quietly leave the stage to return to whatever strange planet it is they come to leaving a Manchester crowd euphoric and emotionally drained.
So that was it. After all this time, two night of the band I had waited so long to see. Did it live up to expectations? More than I can adequately describe. ATP at Minehead was incredible, but this was something else entirely. It was everything I could have imagined, a wild steampunk cacophony filled with brutal, terrifying beauty. Those songs continued to reverberate around my brain for days afterwards. I shall be seeing them again in August at Jabberwocky; I’m sure it will be great, but whether it can live up to this is another story. All we need now is for Jeff to bury a few demons and start writing again.
Oh and by the way, that CD is back on my car stereo… I think it will be there for a while.