In 1998, Neutral Milk Hotel released an album of hallucinatory folk-rock called In The Aeroplane Over The Sea that is, it can be said without fear of exaggeration, nothing short of a heartbreaking work of staggering genius. Like My Bloody Valentine's Loveless, it is lightning caught in a bottle, one of those rare perfect albums that come along maybe once a decade. Or once a lifetime. In 1999, Jeff Mangum -- Neutral Milk's singer, songwriter and primary guitarist -- disappeared from public life without explanation, declining all entreaties to perform or discuss the album or record a follow-up. Over the course of his decade-long, Salinger-like hermitage, succeeding generations of Holden Caulfield-types have discovered and come to revere the album, and as such it has become something like The Catcher In The Rye of indie-rock. Four years ago Mangum emerged from seclusion and started performing again, refusing to offer any explanation for his mysterious disappearance or sudden return. After two solo tours came the announcement last summer that Mangum would be reuniting the original band for a world tour that sold out in minutes.
Thursday night, the siren song of Julian Koster's singing saw lured us -- like mice to cheese -- out of our warm, smoky Hobbit Holes to the Tower Theater in Philadelphia on a dark arctic evening to hail the return of the King Of Carrot Flowers and his band of merry men. They were all there: Frodo, Bilbo Baggins, an Oompa-Loompa or two and the rest of the Keebler elves. Towering Gandalf-like above them all, beneath a low-slung ball cap and Duck Dynastic beard, was Mangum, he of the metronomic acoustic strum and ecstatic car-horn bleat of a voice. They mixed up NMH's two extant LPs (Aeroplane and 1996's On Avery Island) and two extant EPs (1994's Everything Is and 2011's closet-cleaning Ferris Wheel On Fire).
The real revelation last night wasn't how great the Aeroplane material sounded, of this we've long since been well-aware and as such well-prepared, rather it was how they wrapped select non-Aeroplane tracks -- such as "A Baby for Pree / Glow Into You" and "Gardenhead / Leave Me Alone" or an epic, set-closing "A Snow Song Part One" -- in major/minor power chord choogling, making them sound like Black Sabbath counting how many holes it takes to fill the Albert Hall.
Sometimes they were shockingly shit-together, and other times they were a hot mess -- much as they were at Dobbs back in 1998, as I fondly recall -- but mostly they sounded like Neutral Milk Hotel blessed with a banquet of bizarre and obscure ethnographic instrumentation and assorted fun trick noisemakers, but without Aeroplane producer/Apples In Stereo mainman Robert Schneider pushing their buttons, twirling their knobs and lining up their planets in perfect harmonic convergence. They should have stopped with the show-stopping "Two Headed Boy Pt. 2" that Mangum threw down all by his lonesome for an encore -- which was second only to his holy mountain-climbing solo version of "Oh Comely" earlier in the set -- but of course, they didn't, because as we all know the central tenet of indie-rock is now and shall forever be: If you don't fuck up once in a while you are not trying hard enough.
But no matter. As we headed out into the scrotum-cinching cold, there was a kind of hush all over the world last night, and we all agreed wordlessly that nothing would ever be the same again. That we would all lock this feeling -- belief, I suppose you could call it -- some place safe so that it might comfort us in our darkest hour, and we would fear no evil as it shepherded us through the valley of the shadow of death. For as it was written a long time ago: One day we will die and our ashes will fly from the aeroplane over the sea, but for now we are young, let us lay in the sun and count every beautiful thing we can see. Amen.