Jeff Mangum has been called the unicorn of lo-fi rock, an almost mythical figure who was considered one of the most prolific alternative musicians of the 90s as the leader of Neutral Milk Hotel.
Known for his strange songs filled with intimate lyrics, tales of longing and unique instrumentation, he crafted surreal melodies that spoke to every alienated 15-year-old sitting in their basement with an acoustic guitar. By the end of the '90s, NMH garnered a cult-like following mostly made up of college radio enthusiasts and sad-eyed teenagers, who learned guitar by memorizing the chords to songs addressing everything from sexual awakenings to Anne Frank.
The sleeper success of 1998’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, however, was more fame than Mangum was willing to accept. Eccentric and somewhat reclusive to begin with, Mangum disappeared from the spotlight shortly after the album’s release, hiding out for the past 15 years with, as he put it, “the love of my life.”
In that time, a whole new generation of lonely youth has discovered Mangum’s music, which is why both of his 900+ seat shows at Chicago's Athenaeum Theatre this week sold out in a record four minutes, leading to a flurry of desperate Craigslist ads and heartbroken Tweets.
On Monday and Tuesday, Mangum performed most of his songs with just a guitar (which is “how they were meant to be heard”), occasionally joined by other musicians on clarinet, drums, and flugelhorn.
NMH wasn’t about production value: the instrumentation is borderline amateurish and the vocals have that high-pitched, whiny Dylan-esque sound that is far from technical skill. But during the show Mangum’s voice rang out clear and strong, holding impossibly long notes, wavering in a way that wasn’t quite vibrato but still showcased his impressive range. One needs to understand the power of Mangum’s music though, which is at times deeply personal and bizarre, yet still manages to connect with everyone from the happy to the heartbroken.
Plenty of performers make demands of their fans, but there’s a reverence held for Mangum that makes people respect his requests. He asked that no one record photo or video and not a single attempt at taking pictures was made at any point during the show. He told the crowd to address him directly, cuing questions and declarations from fans about everything from his personal life to his music career.
An attempt at creating a more intimate atmosphere to allow fans to appreciate the music itself, Mangum also continually prompted the audience to join him as he sang (“If you can sing along in your room, you can do it here”), leading group renditions of songs such as “Holland, 1945,” “King of Carrot Flowers, Pt. 1” and “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea.”
In contrast to the shuffling that went on as friends and former members of NMH opened the performance, the crowd was notably silent during Mangum’s set, only clapping and letting out enthusiastic yelps in between songs, since no one wanted to “scare him back underground again,” as one girl waiting in the merch line put it.
Mangum’s music is also intertwined with a lot of memories for many people, and there were definitely many audience members wiping away tearsas he strummed the opening chords of “Oh Comely.”
But most importantly, Mangum reaffirmed that both he and his music could still resonate with his audience. After playing the particularly dark “Little Birds,” and being greeted by applause, he prompted the audience to speak up.
“You don’t have to be so nice to me,” he muttered, smiling almost bashfully.
“Thank you so much for being here!” yelled a girl in the front.
“Well, if you really want to thank me,” he said as his smile grew, “then you can sing along.”