Photo from flickr user keithjaynelson

Catching signals that sound in the dark: Neutral Milk Hotel’s timelessness is second only to their flawlessness

By Zibby Pillote /// Editor-in-Chief

With the progression of three simple chords, a packed, sweating Crystal Ballroom is the solitude of my bedroom in 2006. Eight years following the release of “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea”, my 14-year-old self struggles to stretch my fingers into a b-flat across guitar frets to master “King of Carrot Flowers, Pt. 1”. Since then, Jeff Mangum’s peculiar voice has haunted mix CDs, car stereos and ear buds as I’ve grown these past eight years.

The first night of Neutral Milk Hotel’s two-show residency at the Crystal Ballroom left me feeling complete, and even changed; as a jaded listener who didn’t expect to be wowed following Jeff Mangum’s solo performance on the same stage two years ago, I was pleasantly blown away. There was nothing new about the performance, nothing extraordinary—the band sounds verbatim like their albums—just the pure, flawless, slightly sped-up magnitude of a band that has influenced independent music for the last 25 years.

It would be easy for a band like NMH, one so well-known for so little material, to perform themselves. With sixteen years between the band and “Aeroplane,” one has to wonder how much connection they really feel to these songs. The answer based on their performance: a lot. Scott Spillane, who plays horn and other random instruments, sang along to every song, without microphone; Julian Koster, who supports Mangum on banjo, bass and guitar, hardly stood still; the band was full, brandishing horns of all sorts, keyboards and accordions. During fast-paced songs like “Holland, 1945” the stage was alive with noise and light.

Standing amongst fans of all ages, people old enough to be my parents and their children, I couldn’t help but feel a visceral reaction to everything—Mangum’s voice, the brassy fuzz, the lyrics. I could feel Mommy sticking the knife right into Daddy’s shoulder. I am laying and learning; I am finding that secret place that no one dare to go. I am Naomi, in full bloom walking through Cambridge. I am Comely, asleep with my mother in the trailer park. They’re placing fingers in the notches of my spine, and I am tapping on my jar.

Just as Mangum’s lyrics transcend history, space and time, so does NMH. They aren’t a band that one can pin down to any one era, one decade—they are a seething, ever-present, old-souled and timeless spirit in every breath of every song that we cherish now. In a way, I’m glad I wasn’t old enough or aware enough to see NMH in their time. I needed my own time, needed to make my own meaning out of their catalog of songs. I needed to relate the heartbreak of “Two Headed Boy Pt. 2” to the time my crush didn’t ask me to prom; I needed to define myself as an Engine who’d go “through endless revisions to state what I mean.” I needed to see Neutral Milk Hotel once, through the lens of my 21-year-old self, looking backwards on all of the ways I have been moved to feel by these songs.

And as disappointing as it was not to hear Mangum’s loud and apathetic, “OK” at the end of “King of Carrot Flowers Pts. 2-3,” I’ll gladly take the 90-some minutes of awe I was given.

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