Better Than: The emotional, drug-enhanced séance you and your friends in college hosted to listen to In the Aeroplane Over the Sea in near-total darkness
If you’re into Neutral Milk Hotel, there’s no way to show up to a concert like last night’s Celebrate Brooklyn barn-burner at the Prospect Park Bandshell and not brace for the worst. The quartet is one of the rare acts that has–since its naissance nearly 30 (!) years ago, through its twice-as-bright recording era, while its geniuses went on semi-reclusive hiatus, and now in the denouement of its year-long reunion tour–slowly assembled a mythology, one observed by even casual fans. It’s the kind of mythology that elicits that sober, pious sort of fandom that reverts one back to his or her overemotional teenaged self, the kind that is shared in the quiet of dorm rooms, or on co-op house turntables, or through mix-tapes from ex-lovers.
No matter how a Neutral Milk fan first came into the fold, though, even if the discovery was communal, the act of enjoying their music itself has always seemed, to me at least, more like a subdued, sit-on-the-floor dinner party than an open-field rager. (In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is about Anne Frank, after all.) Which is why the concept of seeing this band in a massive outdoor bandshell with five thousand sweaty Brooklyn kids–amidst a several-year revival of the band’s live show, that once seemed precious before we realized it might never end–is one a fan should expect to be ridiculous at best, hackneyed and transactional at worst.
But this is not, for some magical, unnameable reason, what it was like last night.
In reality, Jeff Mangum’s ears stick out from beneath his now-infamous khaki green soldier cap and outrageous beard/mop combo as he steps onstage wordlessly and kicks off his band’s set with an acoustic performance of “I Will Bury You in Time.” The rest of the band filters in so that the end of Mangum’s solo transitions effortlessly into a bright, raucous rendition of “Holland, 1945”; Julian Koster bounces on the balls of his feet, spinning in circles of apparent rapture as he plucks his bass. Mangum tells the crowd it’s good to be home (even though the band’s origins lie in Athens), and that is all he’ll say for the rest of the night, until “thank you” and “goodnight.”
The movements of “The King of Carrot Flowers” (“Part One”, “Parts Two and Three”) are stitched expertly together, exposing no awkward tuning silences or unnecessary, self-serving banter. No one on stage wastes a moment basking in the evening’s aura, an atmosphere crafted over many years by the folklore of weird college kids and musical saws. They hardly blink when Mangum’s infamous refrain “I love you, Jesus Christ/ Jesus Christ I love you, yes I do” suddenly turns a crowd of hip young Brooklynites into an evangelical conference that would be broadcast in the mornings on TBS–but be assured, the whole affair still comes off as refreshingly self-aware.
In a massive plaza that seems like it would drown a quaint act like this, the band’s sound–drums and brass in particular–instead booms in pristine form; I’d thank only the Bandshell engineer, but it might be that this clarity also just comes with the territory of that matchless, nasal Mangum twang. Every waltz, every shuddering, trudging instrumental resounds as crisply and clearly as it would if the organizers had just spun the record itself. It’s important, in an age where a musician’s ability to tour successfully can mean life or death, to appreciate a band who can so exactly replicate its record to an audience who has likely obsessed over it. (Judging by how many waifish young fans EMT staff had to wheel out of the plaza last night, that obsession is potent: everyone wanted to feel something, regardless of what chemical alterations that might perhaps entail.)
This night is neither deflated nor trite, as a band that went on hiatus 15 years ago, then came back (first Mangum alone, then the whole band) and wouldn’t go away might be in danger of becoming; instead it is brisk and businesslike and joy-conducive. Somewhere around “The Fool,” the thought suddenly occurs to me that this–like every truly special show–is not so much a concert or an emotive rite as it is a communal celebration of the people gathered onstage and off: You exist!, the crowd might have yelled. We exist! We are all existing together, here, and are happy, despite how improbable that delight may have seemed before.
Critical Bias: I have been on the receiving end of an alarming number of texts from close friends over the past year that were all some variation of “Just saw NMH, brb sobbing”
Random Notebook Dump: Has no one made the joke yet that Julian Koster looks like Michael Showalter in Wet Hot American Summer? Should I?
I Will Bury You in Time (Mangum, solo)
The King of Carrot Flowers, Part One
The King of Carrot Flowers, Parts Two & Three
Ferris Wheel on Fire
Two-Headed Boy (Mangum, solo)
In the Aeroplane Over the Sea
Gardenhead / Leave Me Alone
Song Against Sex
Snow Song, Part One
Two-Headed Boy, Part Two (Mangum, solo)