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October 23, 2013

Don’t start me to talkin’

I know you asked me to shut up about Neutral Milk Hotel. I know you don’t want to hear it. But you have to give me some credit; I’ve kept it to myself (for the most part) for a long time, 12 or 13 years if you forget that one time I made a list of the greatest two albums of all time. 

After all this time, you’d think I’d get over it, but I haven’t. The damn thing (the album, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, released in 1998) still makes me weep. Uncontrollably. Just sitting here thinking about it is making my eyes well up.

It’s stupid, I know. It’s just a damn record. A bunch of guys playing instruments and a spew of bizarre word combinations that defy conventional interpretation. I guess the production touches — the French horn, the saw, the accordion and such — set it apart, but that really isn’t the trick.

Back in the day (as they say), Jeff Mangum, the guy who wrote the lyrics, explained (again and again, I’m sure, to dozens of music writers and fans, like me) that he wrote the songs under the influence of “The Diary of a Young Girl” by Anne Frank and, perhaps a bit more obviously, exposure to such a thing as a “Two-Headed Boy” in a museum of medical deformities (or a catalog or photobook presenting such images). The resulting response to the concept of existence (“How strange it is to be anything at all!”) mixes wonder with heartbreak and absurdity in a way that is only resolvable by playing the record at the end, where Mangum intimates the end of an affair: “Don’t hate her when she gets up to leave.”

A truly bizarre record, it was (quite unexpectedly) met with rabid enthusiasm, and the band’s performances in the late ’90s were astonishing spectacles, with throngs of fans singing along with Mangum’s apparent stream-of-consciousness gibberish. Everyone who followed pop music at that time was sure we had found a new superstar in Mangum, an artist for the ages. And then he disappeared.

I was told by Robert Schneider, the leader of the band Apples in Stereo and the producer of Aeroplane, that Jeff was happier being out of the spotlight, but there were reports he had had a breakdown, which, as far as I’m concerned, might have been the only reasonable response to his experiences at the time.

Nothing was heard from Mangum for years. He started a small record label, Orange Twin, and released recordings by some of his collaborators and friends. There was an album of Eastern European field recordings, if I remember correctly.

And then, more or less out of the blue, he showed up with his guitar to play for the Occupy Wall Street protesters. The whole performance is still viewable on YouTube. Thereafter, he booked an erratic series of solo shows, including one that brought him to Lexington during the summer of 2012. Julian Koster, who had played on Aeroplane, opened that show with his band, Music Tapes, and joined Mangum for a few songs during the main set, playing the saw.

Thus, the stage was set for what has become an ongoing series of shows by the reunited and revamped Neutral Milk Hotel. (Were there eight people on stage or only seven?) The tour brought them to our region with a performance at the Madison Theater in Covington, Ky., last week, and last Friday, they played in Memphis. My friend and I hit the road and caught both of those shows.

Predictably, the sets were composed almost entirely of songs from Aeroplane, with a couple from the band’s earlier effort, On Avery Island, thrown in. The show in Covington was uncomfortably oversold. Minglewood Hall in Memphis was a much more pleasant venue, and the band seemed to be more enthusiastic in the open environment.

Having never been to Memphis before, we made a pilgrimage to Sun Records, and we saw the sun set over the Mississippi River near Mud Island, the site of Jeff Buckley’s untimely death.

Yes, I know, I’ve told this story before. I hope you don’t mind. People tend to do that, though, you know: tell the same story, over and over. It doesn’t bother me if you do it. I don’t really start to remember things until I’ve heard them a couple times. Stories we tell again and again are the ones that define us.