For more than a decade, Jeff Mangum seemed destined to become the Harper Lee of indie rock. With the release of “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea” (1998), the second album from his band Neutral Milk Hotel, he had been hailed as either a crackpot or a genius. His lyrics depicted a phantasmagoria of penny-arcade freaks and second-world-war tragedy, conjuring up two-headed boys in jars, faces filled with flowers and flies, and semen on mountaintops. Ragged brass gave the stories a lovely solemnity, but it was Mangum’s voice, a breathless, reedy wail, that really impressed upon you what he saw when he closed his eyes.
A year later he abruptly stopped touring amid rumours of a mental breakdown, and many fans gave up hope of ever seeing these rich, fleshy songs performed live. Neutral Milk Hotel lived on as a pop-culture reference—John Green put them in “Will Grayson, Will Grayson”, the young-adult novel he wrote with David Levithan—and as an influence, inspiring some excellent younger acts from Arcade Fire to Bon Iver.
Mangum’s comeback 15 years later, complete with the original NMH line-up, is something of a miracle. Even better, he truly renders a record that once felt like a great secret. At the Albert Hall in Manchester in May, he hardly spoke, except to ask for the lights on his face to be turned down. His voice was undiminished, a throaty drawl that sang on as he discreetly conducted a band made of guitars and musical saws, euphoniums and trombones. Underneath this glorious noise, the crowd could be heard singing every strange line of the lyrics, faces upturned to this statuesque long-haired figure in a trucker cap. It felt like Mangum’s own moment of salvation, but we were all savouring the sound. His dates this summer are rumoured to be the last for the foreseeable future. ~ Hazel Sheffield
Neutral Milk Hotel tour North America, July 4th-26th; Europe, Aug 1st-20th
Rock at a glance
Latitude (Suffolk, July 18th- 20th). Half the size of Glasto, more than half the quality, and at least as much fun. Look out for Damon Albarn, First Aid Kit, Royksopp and Robyn, Hall & Oates, Booker T, Lykke Li, the Pajama Men, poets, novelists, film-makers, and these people...
Dawes (touring America, July 2nd-4th, July 26th to Aug 1st, Aug 23rd-24th; Europe, July 8th-21st, Aug 5th-19th). A long hard summer for a band who are deliciously easy on the ear, mixing a West Coast 1970s sound with the wisest lyrics this side of Leonard Cohen. At the European shows, they mostly support Conor Oberst, who has a fine new album himself—“Upside Down Mountain”.
Kate Bush (Hammersmith Apollo, London, from August 26th). First gigs in 35 years from the most influential woman in rock.
Jenny Lewis (album, July 28th). Once the voice of Rilo Kiley, then the leader of a trio with the Watson Twins, then a solo artist, lately a double act with Johnathan Rice, Jenny Lewis (left) is back on her own again, and recapturing the wry charm of “Rabbit Fur Coat”. ~ Tim de Lisle
Intelligent tunes: six good songs to slip into your pocket
Passenger: 27 How to paint a self-portrait in a few deft strokes.
John Hiatt: Terms of My Surrender The blues renewed with a sly wit and a soft heart.
Nick Mulvey: Juramidam Afro-pop-jazz-folk. More fun than it may sound.
Grace Jones: Walking in the Rain “Nightclubbing” is back, remastered and still resplendent.
Roddy Frame: Into the Sun From a sparkling new album, a pop gem.
Jenny Lewis: Late Bloomer A sunny melody, a voice like spring water, and a lyric that unfolds like a good novella.
All songs at iTunes and Spotify (enter IntLifeMag)