The audience responded to this mans appearance with rapturous applause. Grown men shed tears, strangers embraced, and record geeks the world over set the Internet ablaze with stunned commentary.
One concert attendee interviewed by Pitchforkmedia.com the next day reported that this mans voice came from the earth, not from the heavens (as he does on the records we love). He was haunted, as if he had not sung a note in five years.
The ostensibly hyperbolic concertgoer was surprisingly accurate. The haunted man onstage, Jeff Mangum, had not sung a note for five years, or at least not publicly. Following a long tour in support of the indie-rock touchstone In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, the enigmatic, fragile, and elusive former Neutral Milk Hotel front man disappeared from the publics harsh glare and high expectations.
Despite Mangums vanishing act, his legacy looms large. Over the course of the past few years, indie-rock has taken several of its most important cues from the bizarre cabaret chamber-pop of In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. From the freak-folk artistry of Joanna Newsom and Devendra Banhart to the purposefully affected vocals of Clap Your Hands Say Yeah and Wolf Parade, Mangums influence is pervasive.
Each year, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea sells another few thousand copies, and Mangum and company gain a few more thousand disciples. In light of their consistent popularity, Domino Records just recently re-released the album in the United Kingdom. The import-only reissue sold in both compact disc and LP formats has been remastered and repackaged, and the spruced up sleeve features enthusiastic commentary from current indie icons Franz Ferdinand and Arcade Fire.
Of course, the extra goodies and window dressing are secondary to the tremendous songs that firmly place In the Aeroplane Over the Sea in the upper echelon of great alternative rock albums.
Opening with a sharp, deliberate, and unbelievably loud strum of an acoustic guitar, The King of Carrot Flowers Part 1 immediately grabs the listener with its simple but effective melody. And then comes Magnums haunting howl, an unhealthy, ugly instrument that bleats in and out of tune. Magnums voice is the bands focal point, the grotesquely beautiful undercurrent to the simple 60s melodies that propel the groups best songs.
It is also the vehicle for the surrealistic lyrics that drive the record and demand repeated attention. Mangum imbues each track with startling imagery, an absurdist cloud cover for the slices of realism that slither beneath the surface. No one may be sure who, or what, the King of Carrot Flowers is, but a dark past undercuts the ostensibly nonsensical wordplay.
After all, when Mangum sings, And Mom would stick a fork right into daddys shoulder, and Dad would throw the garbage all across the floor, as we would lay and learn what each others bodies were for, you get the idea that regal vegetables arent the only things on his mind.
The additional orchestration from the accordion to the trumpet to the zanzithophone joins Magnums locomotive voice, lending color to the singers melodic shapes. And thats only the first song. Soon, the closing chords of the King of Carrot Flowers Part 1 melt into the fuzzy plucked strings of the King of Carrot Flowers Part 2-3 and Mangums harrowing, thrice repeated yelp of I love you Jesus Christ.
The King of Carrot Flowers suite finally ends in a haze of gauzy guitar distortion, and the album veers back into the baroque pop balladry that characterizes most of the record. In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is a gentle acoustic jaunt with a tender horn arrangement, while the emotional Two-Headed Boy is driven by Mangums voice and guitar alone.
The short instrumental interlude The Fool is a pleasant, spacey warm up to the incendiary Holland 1945, the fastest song on the record. The explosive Holland 1945 fades into the tender lull of the Communist Daughter. (Although, Mangums cryptic refrain of Semen stains the mountaintops offsets the seemingly softhearted nature of the song).
Other highlights from the record include the dramatic and lengthy Oh Comely, and the wistful Two-Headed Boy Part 2, in which Mangum makes his most explicitly desperate declaration of love: Ill love you for the rest of your life (when youre ready). The record rides this emotional high note to the end, and appropriately, the final note of In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is the lone, plaintive strain of Mangums voice and guitar.
Since Mangum pulled his Houdini, fans desperate for a follow-up to In the Aeroplane Over the Sea have placed the notoriously nomadic musician in a number of places. Some reported that he was in New Jersey, New York City, San Francisco, or his hometown of Athens, Georgia. Others claim that Mangum has actually gone insane and is being treated for a variety of mental illnesses.
A rare interview granted by Mangum in 2003 dispelled most, if not all, of the rumors that continue to circulate around him. Apparently, Mangum has simply lost his muse, and will only make music when he feels inspired again.
However, most people still cling to the notion that Mangum is holed up in a ratty apartment with an even rattier acoustic guitar, composing another masterpiece which would both silence critics and trump his previous achievements.
Whether or not this is the case, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea remains a stunning testament to Mangums creative power, a uniquely singular artistic vision that still resonates today.