It’s hard to believe that there was a period of time not too long ago when there was a flurry of Neutral Milk Hotel activity after a decade of silence.
After wrapping up touring for In the Aeroplane Over the Sea in 1998, Jeff Mangum disappeared. Of course, he didn’t really disappear but he didn’t do what we expect our beloved rock stars to do: write an album, release an album, tour the album, write an album, release an album, tour the album, repeat ad infinitum or at least until people get tired you. That’s not what Mangum did.
But he didn’t disappear.
He played a full solo set in New Zealand in 2001. And after that, he would occasionally show up for a cameo when his friends’ bands would play in New York. It’s pretty presumptuous to assume that if a rock and roll guy isn’t out doing typical rock and roll stuff then he must be a recluse and maybe even unstable. We don’t have a lot of examples of folks who stepped away. Syd Barrett? Sure, probably cuckoo for cocoa puffs, but who really knows? But there’s also Bill Withers and Bobbie Gentry who seem to have led perfectly undramatic lives away from the spotlight.
I missed NMH the first time around. This will sound like bullshit but I was introduced to their music by a guy named Merlin. It’s true. Merlin. It was a family name. His dad was named Merlin too. He had just seen them play Lounge Ax and told me how great they were. He told me they had two albums but I should start with the newest one. By the time I got into Aeroplane, the band was over.
But then in 2008, the Elephant Six Holiday Surprise Tour was announced as a way to promote the release of Major Organ and the Adding Machine on DVD, but really its main purpose seemed to be an excuse for a bunch of friends to get together and travel around the country and make an enormous racket. I saw the Chicago show. At the end, Mangum and Julian Koster played “Engine” from the middle of the floor. It had taken ten years, but I finally got to see as much of Neutral Milk Hotel as I ever expected I would. Besides Mangum and Koster, Scott Spillane, Laura Carter, and Robert Schneider were also part of the ensemble. And Jeremy Barnes was in attendance. So everyone involved in the recording of In the Aeroplane Over the Sea was together in the same room. I was disappointed they didn’t take advantage of that circumstance and run through “Ghost” or “Holland, 1945,” but it was still a thrill.
A few more years went by and seemingly out of nowhere in 2011 Mangum launched a website with an announcement of a massive vinyl NMH box set containing both albums, two 10″ EPs, three 7-inch singles, featuring fifteen previously unreleased tracks including a Holy Grail studio recording of “Little Birds,” the only song known to have been written by Mangum post-Aeroplane, played live only once at Mangum’s penultimate performance of 1998. I ordered it immediately. It’s a beautiful thing and the unreleased stuff was breathtaking.
And then, amazingly, Mangum announced a solo tour. I saw him at the Athenaeum Theatre in Chicago on February 6, 2012 and it was everything I had hoped for. His voice was strong. His beard was fantastic. The songs sounded as good as ever.
And then, even more amazingly, a full-band world tour was announced. I got to see them at the Riviera Theatre in Chicago in 2014 and again in Kalamazoo in 2015! The band lived up to everything I could’ve imagined. Chaotic, joyful, mournful, haunting, silly, and super fun. But then that was it. They said it would be the “last tour for the foreseeable future” and it was.
Neutral Milk Hotel news has been pretty quiet since then.
But now, Merge has announced it’s expanding that box set and re-releasing it on February 24 as The Collected Works of Neutral Milk Hotel, adding the Live at Jittery Joe’s LP and a previously unreleased 2014 live recording of “Little Birds” on the single. They also expanded On Avery Island to two LPs to include the full-length version of “Pree-Sisters Swallowing a Donkey’s Eye.” Plus, the “Holland, 1945” / “Engine” 7-inch has brand new art.