“I will shout until they know what I mean!” Not only did singer Jeff Mangum pen these words for Neutral Milk Hotel’s song “The King of Carrot Flowers Part 3,” he did exactly that last Friday night in a concert that filled Sanders Theatre to capacity. Although Mangum’s songs are not regarded as easily accessible—what with his unique voice and love of confusing narratives—his artistry leaves listeners hanging on his every word. In his Friday concert, Mangum transfixed listeners in the same venue where students had attended Economics 10: “Principles of Economics” lecture hours before. Except for the slightly higher-than-usual proportion of flannel shirts, it looked like any large Harvard lecture—that is, until Jeff Mangum walked on stage and brought forth an atmosphere of hero-worship that lasted far after his set concluded.
Jeff Mangum’s solo appearance at Sanders Theatre was hardly a typical occurrence for the alternative music scene. The show marked Mangum’s first major performance in more than a decade since the 1998 release of Neutral Milk Hotel’s critically acclaimed second album, “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea.” More than a simple collection of songs, the band’s album is a convoluted narrative of young love, a two-headed boy, and Anne Frank set to unconventional instrumentation—most notably a frequent use of singing saws. “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea” remains the band’s last release, for Mangum—citing an inability to live up to the idolization of his fans—withdrew from the public eye shortly after the release. For years, he lived as a kind of recluse, leaving the world of performing indefinitely. However, as his Sanders performance can attest, Mangum has returned.
As soon as he took the stage, Mangum launched into a rendition of “Oh Comely,” an eight-minute stream-of-consciousness account of unrequited love both highly cryptic and graphically sexual. Though Mangum lacked his backing band, his solo reinterpretation was even more intimate and spellbinding than the recorded version. He carried a feeling of closeness and connection throughout the show, the magical atmosphere captured best when the entire theater burst into song, perfectly regurgitating Mangum’s bizarre and often cumbersome lyrics. It was certainly strange to hear a resounding chorus of phrases like “And your mom would stick a fork right into Daddy’s shoulder / and Dad would throw the garbage all across the floor / as we would lay and learn what each other’s bodies were for” in Sanders’ cavernous hall.
Mangum’s performance was filled with endearingly awkward, raw moments—a reflection of the earnest and personal nature of Neutral Milk Hotel’s albums. During “A Baby for Pree,” a track off their debut, “On Avery Island,” the sound system in Sanders Theater lost function. However, far from deterring Mangum on his acoustic guitar, the malfunction enlivened Mangum’s spirit: in his devotion for his fans, he kneeled at the very front of his stage, never pausing on his guitar. Later on, during a brief pause in Mangum’s almost continuous performance, he shouted, “I think I could die happy too,” by way of reply to a fan who had presumably said something to that effect.
Mangum concluded his set to a standing ovation that continued minutes past his brief, one-song encore. When the applause prompted a second encore, Mangum emerged once more to give a hushed, un-amplified performance of “Two-Headed Boy”—a song about a Siamese twin’s love for Anne Frank—as a parting gift. Perhaps the oddity of Mangum’s lyrics is part of his allure: with only a funny hat and four guitars, he broke a decade of silence and commanded Sanders’ stage with unmatched authority.
—Staff writer Sophie E. Heller can be reached at email@example.com.