The Shubert Theater, like many large and lovely venues of its kind, prohibits the photographing or recording of performances. Fortunately, there are two occasions during which I find it not only undesirable, but also ridiculous to want to experience a night through a viewfinder. The first is when I’m truly comfortable, at home, or among the best of friends — why bother? — and the second is when I’m in absolute awe of the realness of my surroundings; in selfish service to the present moment, I feel little need to “capture” anything for later recollection.
At Wednesday’s Jeff Mangum concert at the Shubert, I happily heeded the no-camera rule, because there I was in the middle of both reasons not to surreptitiously open the Instagram app: in the presence of a thoroughly mesmerizing artist, the voice of a very specific part of a generation, and also — somehow — completely at ease, as though everyone in the room were old friends. Barthes describes photography as a haunting sort of communication: images “from a real body, which was there, proceed radiations which ultimately touch me, who am here.” From his spotlit chair in the middle of the stage, Mangum himself radiated. I didn’t want a souvenir.
I suppose, in the context of being a guy in a little hat with some guitars shout-singing to a room of flannel, Jeff Mangum is really just a dude. He’s a dude who had some endearing banter with his audience at some concert, gracious when some of them were really determined to generously rewrite his setlist for him. He’s a dude who said “Thanks!” in earnest and in haste after the last chord of each song. And he’s also a dude who fronted a band that put out, among other gems both released and un-, one of the strangest and best albums of the 1990s, Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea.
After countless plays since the moment a miniature-sized, 13-year-old Nina, with miniature-sized braces and a miniature sized iPod, inexplicably fell in love with a psychedelic folk concept album heavy on the singing saw and rather explicitly devoted to Anne Frank, each open chord and nasal, extended vowel has become intensely real to me (as I’m sure they have to everyone who was willing to pay the Shubert’s operatic price for an indie rock show).
But the evening itself edged on surreal. His appearance in New Haven was the first date of a tour that marks a brave return to the public eye after over a decade of absence following the release of the album in 1998. While his enthralled audience wanted desperately at the time to unravel Mangum’s music and engage with the artist himself, he retreated further and further until he simply wasn’t seen at all. In the single interview he conducted in that time, he seemed to question the legitimacy of the musical pursuit in the first place, telling Pitchfork in 2002 that he suddenly discovered that he couldn’t “sing [his] way out of suffering.”
With all due respect, I know that to be absolutely false because that is exactly what he does. Mangum isn’t a singer-songwriter in any coffee shop definition of the term. His aren’t songs of heartbreak or politics. They’re meditations on massacre, sex and spirituality; each song is a miniature literary work exploring history, both burdensomely collective and isolatingly personal and, often, entirely fictional. Characters bounce around the fringe of reality in an invented past in which the stark sepia of the Second World War and the colorful shadows of a 17th century wunderkammer swirl together, a circus of medical oddities preserved in jars and impressions of now-dead bodies left upon bed sheets.
Mangum’s voice takes turns yelping, shouting and sounding infuriatingly reasonable. In the right state of mind, listening with headphones as he glides up an octave without warning to rocky, sustained wails in “Oh Comely,” the song assumes our suffering, and we are once again light, ready to soar with bandmate Julian Koster’s singing saw solo at the end of “Ghost,” which in my estimation is certainly one of the most exuberant minutes of music ever recorded.
Live, this exuberance was not forgotten. The influence of the whimsy and uninhibited ingenuity of the Elephant 6 Collective, the group of friends and collaborators in Athens, Georgia from which Neutral Milk Hotel sprang, was particularly underscored by the addition of the opening act, the Music Tapes, fronted by Koster. More of an imaginary friend than a band, the Tapes make poignant indie pop seemingly as a by-product of the endlessly creative and knowingly absurd performance they stage. (To best illustrate this sensibility, I couldn’t possibly invent an album title that more adroitly straddles the line between tongue-in-cheek and endearingly earnest than the Tapes’ “The Singing Saw at Christmastime”).
Koster frequently stopped between songs to introduce his bandmates, including a 7 foot-tall metronome, a television named Static, and Mechanized Organ Playing Tower, an adorable entity certainly worth looking up online that is essentially a cylinder with moving hands that play a wooden keyboard. The band marched through the audience singing into megaphones and told fantastical stories of circus acts involving dehydrated, miniaturized European cities. The brass, percussion, singing saw and bowed banjo that comprise the Music Tapes make up a bizarrely coherent mix of pop and whatever the complete opposite of pop is, and brilliantly exemplify the Elephant 6 zeitgeist.
Situating Mangum’s performance in the context of this sort of illuminated, genre-defying eccentricity added an essential dimension to his unsurprisingly understated set. With the exception of the Music Tapes’ company on the unreleased “Engine” and instrumental carnival “The Fool,” the visual experience was basically limited to Mangum surrounded, in concentric rings, by four guitars, and then darkness. Nothing limited him aesthetically, and the whole affair was much more uninhibited and casual than I had anticipated. Songs off of “On Avery Island,” the album before “In the Aeroplane,” were uncharacteristically freed from the gentle smog of tape hiss that covers them on the recordings and sounded brand new, or at least newly shined.
For someone who, as far as I had read, had at one point grown to resent the fervency of his audience, he implored us to sing along (and then, when our attempt wasn’t enough, to “C’mon!”) to “Holland, 1945” and “Ghost.” But singing with Mangum-the-person rather than Mangum-the-recording seemed to be a dubious honor that both fulfilled a long-held fantasy and encroached on the rarity of the moment. It occurred to me that perhaps he did this to justify to himself his own status as an unimpeachable cultural icon, even after all this time. Ultimately, we were all included passionately as friends in a most improbable situation, our voices helping out the voice of a man that had long affected every person in the room.
All of which serves to make the unlikely experience of seeing him live a bit transcendent and appropriately celebratory. After all, though his music has a tendency to touch on heavy material, Mangum’s underlying sensibility is one of mirthful awe at the wonderful chance of existence. As he muses at the end of “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea,” the single song he comfortingly chose as his encore, “How strange it is to be anything at all!” The lingering sound of this affirmation will stick with me longer than any photograph.