Today, Neutral Milk Hotel announced that their upcoming tour will be their last for the foreseeable future. I’m still hoping for one last Athens date, maybe on their way up from Florida in mid-May, but I think I can say I’m satisfied with what has been a solid four-year return for Jeff Mangum. Although we’ll likely never hear new music from him–at least not anything that sounds like NMH–his reemergence was a gift to those of us who didn’t discover his music after the turn of the century. And if the Pixies’ also recent return is any indication, the new songs likely wouldn’t meet expectations and would ultimately tarnish the legacy.
So much has been said about this “legacy” of Neutral Milk Hotel. It’s an intensely personal one for a lot of people, people like me who discovered the album by chance or through word-of-mouth. By a longshot, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is my best musical discovery. It was the summer of 2004 when I was rooting through a bunch of burned CDs my sister had obtained from her high school friends. She was far more popular than I ever was, so many of them were given to her. That pile of CDs probably also included The Shins, Brand New, Dashboard Confessional, The Strokes, and others that you’d expect to see in a pile of CDs owned by a suburban white high school student in the mid-00s. I don’t know who provided her with ITAOTS, but it seemed out of place and piqued my interest. I’d heard of Neutral Milk Hotel, lauded on one of the internet forums I frequented at the time, but those were the same people who took Pitchfork as gospel, so I really didn’t care what they were into.
ITAOTS came at just the right time for me musically, a time when I was more adventurous and growing out of the pop-rock of the late 90s. It was also a time of great change, just before my first semester away at college, just before my first serious relationship, and in general, a lot of social growth. I fell in love with this music just as I was falling in love with a lot of things. The weird thing is, a lot of people have very similar stories about finding this band. This is what I mean by this legacy and how intensely personal it is. Everyone has a story about how they found the music of Neutral Milk Hotel, because it’s not something we heard on the radio, TV, or even Pandora, YouTube, or Spotify. It just kind of showed up somewhere, and blew our minds that we hadn’t heard it before. And at the risk of sounding like a mid-00s indie rock cliché, it changed our lives. I may have grown cynical about some things in my thirties, but the influence of music on my life is one of those idealisms I can’t give up or grow out of. It’s linked so heavily with certain time periods of my life that I can’t deny its influence.
Just over four years ago, I met my wife, shortly after I had moved to Athens. We had been chatting online for just a few weeks and agreed to meet at a show at the Caledonia. It was a bold move among several other bold moves I had taken in the months prior…all of which were some of the best moves I’d make in my life thus far. After the show, I gave her my copy of In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. Not the burned copy, the one that I had bought myself because I couldn’t stand that the CD-R wasn’t burned with gapless playback (a major no-no for this album). She had never heard it. It was another beginning, another renaissance and love in my life that started with this album.
It was also four years ago this week that Mangum played a surprise gig in Brooklyn, marking the first time he had publicly performed NMH material in nine years. I couldn’t help but think that his return was a sign that I was in the right place at the right time with the right person–a feeling I really needed to feel at that time in my life. Of course, we had the opportunity to see Jeff and the band several times over the past few years, albeit in the face of some tragedy and what was ultimately a trip that I regret. Still, the shows were a gift. And it felt just like I had imagined it would, particularly since they made an effort to play the same kinds of venues that they played in the late 90s.
So, a risk is taken when you fuck with the “intensely personal legacy”/wonder/idolatry that a lot of people have with a band that they love–particularly Neutral Milk Hotel, who were assumed for years to never return. The question that I’ve noticed arise several times over the past four years is, “Did the magic fade now that so many more people have had the opportunity to see them?” For me, nothing changed, except that it’s provided a closing chapter to a time period that was so heavily influenced by their work. I’ll love their music forever, but there is now nowhere new for it to go. Every song on ITAOTS is haunted by a place, time, and feeling that I officially no longer want to be replaced by anything else. By now, I’ve read the 33 1/3 book several times over and analyzed every note, noise, and blooper on the record. And now, I’ve seen it performed in front of me, mere feet away. An absolute gift. If Jeff decides to put out new music (which I believe he would have by now if he ever intended to), I’ll listen to it, but I don’t need anything more.
Fare thee well, NMH.