Jeff Mangum is a mysterious character. A front man for a band who disappeared just as he was receiving critical acclaim. Vanishing into the woods to hunt the last remaining American Bison while youngins the world over reflect on the beauty of his lyrics. I completely made that up, I think it was moose he went to hunt. But the rest is true.
How many songwriters have written the elusive perfect album? In The Aeroplane Over The Sea is one of those. It sounds like it could have been a psychedelic concept album in the late 60’s. A mix of “We’re Only In It For The Money” and something by an alternate universe Neil Young. I’ll admit I came very late to the party, only learning about Neutral Milk Hotel a few years ago, but that makes it no less powerful. (Maybe it makes it MORE powerful, ever think of that? Eh?? DID YOU?! Ok, on we go.)
It was announced about 8 months ago that Mangum would do a series of solo acoustic shows, including one at the greatest venue on earth, the Loews Landmark Theater in Journal Square, Jersey City. This blog may be filled with sarcasm, but that statement is 100% sincere. I lived in Journal Square, the cultural center of the known universe, for several years. We had the chance to see Beck, The Magnetic Fields, The Decemberists, and a ton of classic movies at the Loews, and it never disappointed. If Dracula suddenly appeared in one of the dark imposingly giant boxes beside the stage, no one would be surprised.
Seeing iconic figures after years of absence is always a tricky proposition. Someone who’s songs meant so much to so many, has a lot to live up to. What if he just plain doesn’t have it anymore? There are a lot of long notes in those songs…What if it’s just a money grab and he doesn’t really care? (solo acoustic….you’ve got NO overhead man, rake in the dollars!) Then it gets you thinking about why Mangum backed out of the spotlight in the first place.
It has often been said, that had Vampire Weekend died in a fiery plane crash directly after their first album, they would be remembered as legends. Forget how much you hate them, and imagine if it were not overplayed and there were no backlash. Maybe Mangum realized this, and took a step back. Maybe he figured “Well, there’s 11 perfect songs, many people work their whole lives for much less, I’m goin’ on break.” Who knows, this is not Being John Malkovich, although we were fairly close to the NJ Turnpike.
After a leisurely stroll around the Loews (seriously, the bathroom lounge must have been THE place to hang during the 1930’s) the lobby lights flickered like an opera performance, and it was time to go. Mangum appeared with several acoustic guitars and launched right into it.
His voice seems nearly unchanged. Yes, there were some almost flubs…but those crazy high sustained notes were all there. The man has breath control like a fucking dolphin. All the hits were played, and the crowd was very respectful, at least from where we were sitting. Yes, it was beautiful, but at times I wished there were a little more sound. At one point, he brought on some Flugelhorn and Clarinet, and it was fantastic. If they had played the classic horn lines with him the entire show, I would have been an emotional wreck, collapsed on the ground bawling like an infant. Imagine the water damage? There were a LOT of sensitive people in that theater. Maybe it was a safety issue.
Seeing a songwriter perform solo, often gets you right into the heart of a song. For some reason, I think Mangum’s songs are pretty wide open to begin with. Even with all the beautiful noisy arrangements on Aeroplane, the song always comes through, its as if Mangum was the Sinatra in front of the Basie Orchestra of whimsical noises. So maybe this was just showcasing what we all knew already. Not to say it wasn’t a great performance, it certainly was, it’s just hard to fill an entire theater with a tiny guitar (his voice certainly did the job, we’re talking instrumentally here.)
So who knows what will happen. His last release of new music was many years ago. What has he been doing since? If he was sitting in his living room playing “Two Headed Boy” over and over again…no one would blame him, but we’d like to think something new could be on the horizon. He played a set at Occupy Wall Street, so there must be some motivation there? I refuse to speculate. Let’s just let Jeff be Jeff. He has a heavy legacy to deal with, he can do whatever he fucking wants, ok?