My first encounter with Neutral Milk Hotel took place in 1997. I was working at Mortenson Construction as a contract software developer writing a time-tracking application in Visual Basic. I really wanted to be doing Java work but the language was too new and nobody had any jobs available. I was 23 and in my third year working as a software developer. On the day in question, I was sitting at my desk, listening to a streaming Internet radio station (which was quite a big deal at the time). “Song Against Sex” from the album On Avery Island started to play and immediately grabbed my attention. I wrote down the artist and the album name and as soon as I could I bought the CD. I wasn’t disappointed but it wasn’t earth shattering either. The remainder of the album, while good, didn’t grab me as much as “Song Against Sex”. Still, when I heard a new album was coming out the following year, I picked it up right away. That album was, of course, “In The Aeroplane Over the Sea”, and I thought it was perfect from beginning to end. I had a new favorite band.
As you may or may not be aware, the Neutral Milk Hotel story then got weird. The album got off to a slow start commercially, but started to gain a reputation and following and the more popular NMH got, the more band leader Jeff Mangum was kinda freaked out by it. It reached a point where the band went on hiatus and that seemed to basically be the end of them. Over the years the influence of the album grew and people waited and waited. In 2011 an EP of “new” NMH material (recorded between 1992-1995) was released as part of a box set. In 2012-2013 Jeff played his first tour since NMH went on hiatus and I saw him play at the State Theater, and it was really great, but, it wasn’t Neutral Milk Hotel. Last night, however, I finally saw Neutral Milk Hotel perform for the first time. I was not disappointed. It was a great night, a great show, a lot of fun.
But here’s the thing… I’m 40 now. Mangum is 43. As fun as it is to see this band play after the long wait, they were playing music almost exclusively written when Jeff was between 24-28 years old. I know he’s been very busy in the intervening years and I sincerely hope he’s happy and healthy, but I will confess to a slight bit of disappointment over the fact that instead of getting new music from the band, they basically spent the night on nostalgia. All the cool lo-fi/indie/junk-rock stuff was up there on stage. Quaint old acoustic guitars, singing saws, Moogs, a lamb lamp, outfits that looked hand sewed or knitted, banjo played with a violin bow, toy electric saxophone, lots o’ brass instruments, and the whole zany lo-fi freak folk vibe was exactly what one would expect from a NMH show circa 1998. Jeff even had a great big huge beard that pretty much fit the current hipster scene perfectly. Truth is, in many ways NMH is the Velvet Underground of today’s alt music, the progenitor, the band that influenced a thousand bands with their one groundbreaking album. NMH belongs with bands like The Velvet Underground, New York Dolls, and Modern Lovers as artists who came and went and then became hugely influential. So maybe, I am saying to myself, just maybe, it’s better that they don’t tour. When they recorded Aeroplane, the world wasn’t ready for them. If they dropped a new album today, the world would be waiting. A different world, with a musical landscape shaped by their music. Could they even put out an album that could make people happy? If it didn’t sound like Aeroplane, if it ventured into new territory, people would reject it because it was different. If it did sound like Aeroplane, people would compare it to that album and it would pale in comparison because they’ve spent over a decade playing and replaying that one. The hiatus wouldn’t have had to hurt NMH if their last album didn’t turn into such a legendary thing, but it did and the longer time goes by the more they have to deal with the shadow of that album. I personally wouldn’t want to have to deal with the shadow of something I made when I was in my mid-20’s for the rest of my life.
I think the solution is obvious, but I doubt it will happen. A new album or two, fresh material, then a tour in which they don’t play all the favorites. One or two for fan service, fine, but challenge their audience to accept them today, for who they are, and leave the nostalgia bit in the past where it belongs. Divide some of the audience. Do a Dylan and go electric. Whatever. Just, as Eno says, “discover your formulas and abandon them” or as the writers say “murder your darlings”. If they were to do that, I would be with them every step. They could do a 7-inch with Daft Punk feat. Beyonce and I would be OK with it. I don’t want to live in my 20’s forever. I don’t want to look backwards too much. A little nostalgia now and then to remember the journey is fine, but the past can be a trap and I only hope that Jeff and the gang get bored with playing Two-Headed Boy and find out what they have to say today and then start to say it to their new audience.
My fingers are crossed and I’m pulling for them because, dammit, they’re still one of my favorite bands.