By David Courtright
Jeff Mangum is one of the last great mysteries in indie music, and he intends to keep it that way. Made famous by his work with Neutral Milk Hotel, and in particular, the seminal album, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, Mangum receded quickly into seclusion after the pressures of fame became too great. His genius, coupled with his reclusive nature, have made him one of the most discussed and desired artists in music today. Which is why it was such an event that he played the 40 Watt.
The place was packed, and being the second sold out night of his tour-ending stop in Athens, the anticipation was palpable. Speaking to people later who went both nights, it was clear the second night was more jocular, the crowd was less attentive. There was a certain lack of awe that was surprising, but throughout the show, I noticed a deep reverence puddling all around me, people mouthing the words as if a benediction. Indeed there is a strong spiritual aspect to his music that many respond to. His treatment of death and life are very literal and very powerful, his images concrete and frightening, while at the same time completely stunning.
And certainly, to see an artist of such talent, whose presence in the music world is largely mythic, is indeed something to write home about. Staring at the back of the house with his inky black eyes, Mangum barked his poetry out across the co-eds with arresting conviction. Truly affecting was hearing the lyrics to a song like “Oh Comely,” lyrics that have been embedded, learned and unlearned and relearned again, tattooed across the back of the mind—to hear that as if for the first time, in all their primal and visceral splendor. Without a doubt one of the greatest living songwriters.
I brought a friend along, who has, at best, lukewarm feelings towards Mangum’s work. I delighted in seeing him respond to and be moved by the show, and it was interesting to get his take—he felt there was a palpable violence to the music, that despite its acoustic nature, there is an aggression in it that unsettled him. To me it was a culmination of years of adoration, or better put, of veneration for someone who can make a song be this fleshy, reproductive, animal thing, who can take a song and eviscerate it and give birth to it all over again. As his steely voice twanged out over the crowd, a great feeling of gratitude and luck washed over me—a lyrical genius, out of his shell.