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Live Report - Neutral Milk Hotel

Posted on Friday, 30 May 2014 | No Comments

And all the atheists sing for Jesus.
One Albert Hall was always a venue for music, yes: the better-known one in London, blessed by royalty, an architectural delight that proved a high water mark of Victoriana, that desire to strive for an artistic and cultural greatness that would be visibly seen to better the world, a velvet glove barely hiding the industrialised enslavement of the poor or the global brutalisations of the Empire. (Funny, isn't it, how loud philanthropists always have been, how desperate to be seen: has charity only ever been the side-effect of the dick waving of the powerful?) This is a different one, one in the Northern capital. Once a Methodist church subsequently left to decay, it has since been re-opened to join its southern sibling in the music business, the just-so nature of its ruination ideal for the modern day indie rock consumer who wants to believe they are taking part in something 'real' - as long as that 'real' comes with over-priced big brand drinks and through the eye of a cameraphone at least.

Cynicism aside however, the Manchester Albert Hall is a magnificent building, and the upstairs church hall has been refitted into a concert space with minimum intrusion or re-arrangement. The high stage, far higher than in most gig venues of this size, actually makes it possible to get a good sightline for those further than ten feet away from the stage, the acoustic resonance is pleasing, and the gorgeous stained windows that let the dusk in just in time for the headline performance lend a genuine drama and grandness to proceedings that your average Academy can, intrinsically, never hope to match. It's an apt space then for a crowd so unusally devoted as this: the story of Neutral Milk Hotel's spluttering out after In the Aeroplane Over the Sea has been told enough times not to require repetition here, suffice to say that even after the small-scale solo tours Jeff Mangum embarked on since 2011, the announcement of a full-scale full band tour retains a sense of the unreal and miraculous to the fans gathered here tonight. One of modern music's last remaining myths, the man who just slid away as the world slowly cottoned on to his peculiar visions, finally lured out to finish promoting that damn album of his.

First though, another slight return from the unfinished nineties. Laetitia Sadier has been building her solo career since Stereolab came to an end, releasing two fine records in the form of The Trip and Silencio. With a third solo album due later this year, the indie community is perhaps finally coming round to the notion of Sadier as a songwriter in her own right (as she also was with her other band Monade) just in time for her dates supporting Neutral Milk Hotel, her largest solo gigs to date. Playing in a trio formation, Sadier and her band strip down the lush arrangements of her studio work and add a new layer of muscle to her songs, but without sacrificing the intelligence and sophistication of her work. The Silencio material in particular is entrancing - the slow sway of Between Earth and Heaven and the frayed narrative of Auscultation to the Nation sound far better in this format - but even Sadier senses that playing anything to an audience this devoted to their headliner is something of a futile task. It's a good set that receives a polite applause, but this is proof positive that sometimes acolytes can be blind to the power of what's happening right in front of them.

There's a strange nervousness that descends on the crowd before the band take to the stage, one that almost outweighs the excitement: can this possibly live up to expectations? Even for those who saw Jeff Mangum on one of his solo dates, the unspoken question of whether our seemingly fragile leader can actually keep it together as a bandleader weighs heavy. But with the sun setting in, Jeff Mangum finally appears on stage, to the most rapturous applause I have ever heard from a crowd (no wonder their promoter booked them into a church.) Replete in face-obscuring baseball cap and bushy beard (equal parts Robert Wyatt and Scott Walker - he's clearly done his research on audience-shunning rock misfits), once the audience finally tires themselves out he launches right into heart-breaker number one, Two Headed Boy. He may shunt himself to the side of the stage and avoid the audience's gaze, but there's still something overwhelmingly magnetic about this performance. His voice has remained thankfully intact, and as he bashes away at his acoustic and belts out those wonderful, dizzying, surrealist lyrics, it's hard not to be aware that, no matter how many songwriters and bands have tried to utilize the (in musical terms, almost embarrassingly simple) template he set out, nobody else has come close. Too many overdo the whimsy, or go in for un-earnt over-emotion and manipulation over genuine feeling, going for an erzatz faux-realism as painfully smug and middle-class as a thousand ukulele-wielding OKCupid adverts. But here, there's one and a half thousand transfixed, utterly fucking frozen punters, bearing witness as a unique songwriting force finally comes in from the cold for real.

After this, the rest of the band finally appear (the Aeroplane four-piece now swelled to a sextet, including Zizek! director Astra Taylor) to the tragic-triumphant stomp of The Fool, and they give the almost frightening impression of having been frozen in aspic since the last tour. Scott Spillane's now grey beard aside, they all look exactly as they did in the few press shots from the time: hell, bassist Julian Koster even has the same awful taste in headwear as before. But the sheer undiluted joy they all exude at finally being able to bring this music to the world again (and to crowds and remuneration, it can safely be said, far in excess of that which they received in 1998) is infectious, with Spilliane, shouting along with every word when not on horn duties, proving himself to be the biggest Neutral Milk Hotel fan around. Holland, 1945 is the scene for huge communal sing-alongs, the title-track to In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is touching and beautiful, and rarity Ferris Wheel on Fire proves to be one of the highlights of the set, it's synth-laden psychedelia the only real hint at where the band might have gone on a third album if they had managed to hold it together.

It's in the middle of the set that the most brilliant, and also most troubling, performance of the night sits. The lumping in of Neutral Milk Hotel in with other indie pop or twee acts has always been circumstantial and uncomfortable, something of a misnomer as soon as you confront the twisted Freudian sexuality and hallucinogenic trauma of their lyrics. And so, right in the middle of the set just as all the believers are feeling jubilant, the rest of the band depart to let Mangum play out what might as well be The Last Ever Song, the final transmission before we face our fate, a song that with brilliance and cruelty takes the joy and kindness of the rest of the set and spits it back at the audience, a final judgement before the lights go out for good. On record, Oh Comely is a dark, troubling monolith, but not one that totally overpowers the rest of the album. Here though, in this darkened church, with Magnum trying to avoid the subdued, stunned crowd, the effect is apocalyptic. The first couple of stanzas place us in the territory of a wounded love song perfectly familiar to Mangum's work, but then it mutates, a monster growing before our eyes. Here comes the terrible fleshy reality of sexuality, two beasts working for and against each other, here comes betrayal and violence, all those great human sins, but then the scene just cuts and we're standing in some mass grave in Europe in 1945, where they buried her body with five hundred others, that most terrible transgression of the twentieth century (if not all human history so far) thrust upon us, and he's dragged us there, implicated himself and the rest of us in the dirt and horror of the human race, and then...well then, the horn players come back to blast out a gentle Baphomet refrain, and he's beckoning us in as a lover, but it's all just self-destruction, our flesh melted into each other, and then? Nothing, of course. At this moment, the wonder isn't why he decided not to carry Neutral Milk Hotel on, but how he ever managed to keep that album going for another three songs. It it a terrifying performance, especially for the clear-eyed precision of it all. There's a horrible second or two between the end of the song and the applause following it, performer and crowd both silently acknowledging what they've just seen, what they've just been through. With Oh Comely, Mangum stared right into the abyss, and just saw his own reflection staring back - it's a piece that stands as a modernist vision of of personal and global apocalypse, one better compared to Guernica, Gravity's Rainbow or The Day Before You Came than anything else by Neutral Milk Hotel.

To say the mood took a dip afterwards would be to invite understatement bordering on mordant sarcasm. Once Mangum's had a chance to chug some water, the band come back on, Koster delivering half a lame joke as if apologising for the terrible behaviour of his band leader (one which, I'm informed by one of the people I'm with, he delivered the previous night - and presumably every night), before launching into the silly On Avery Island opener Song Against Sex. It's a great little song, but in this context, it has the distinct flavour of corrective, and the remainder of the main set, consisting of early drone pieces and other lesser-known pieces, feels distinctly anti-climactic (not to mention a warning of what happens when to try and play a long set with just two albums and a couple of EPs to your name.) Once everyone's had time to settle back in though, the encore restores the mood with a great run-through of the back end of Aeroplane, a speedy Ghost and gleeful Untitled climaxing with a powerful Two Headed Boy, Pt. II. They finally sign off for the night with the communal hug of Engine, the delightful B-side to the original single of Holland, 1945. It's a good way to send off the crowd in a happy frame of mind, almost erasing the trauma of Oh Comely. But it's in that song that some of the troubling strangeness of this performance resides.

 For whatever reason(s), Mangum clearly freaked out after Aeroplane started to break through, and there's been no sign of any new output from him since. Count the full-band performances with his solo gigs, and this is his third year of touring an album he wrote a decade and a half ago: this is borderline Pixies territory. While he seems to have come to terms with performing this material, and is evidently grateful to those who have kept the album close to their heart during the long era of silence, he's certainly not the most comfortable of performers either. As nostalgia performances go, this is about as satisfying and pleasurable as they can get - the energy and enthusiasm from band and crowd alike does justice to some magnificent material. But there is palpably something dark and unresolved going on in the background, be it Mangum's ongoing artistic silence, the sadness of Neutral Milk Hotel being revived as an essentially commercial property, and of course the horrific intensity of Oh Comely, a dispatch from the very edge of human existence that (without wanting to engage in too much armchair psychology) does appear to have in some part contributed to Mangum's post-Aeroplane depression. It's a fantastic performance, but it's one that raises some truly uncomfortable questions about what we expect from art, from artists and indeed from ourselves - and these aren't questions that are answered, let alone acknowledged by the majority of those Mangum was asking.

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