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LIVE REPORT: Neutral Milk Hotel
Elizabeth Murphy , November 25th, 2013 08:17

Elizabeth Murphy heads to Memphis, Tennessee to kneel at the altar of the US indie luminaries

The evaluation here is tough, yes: write a live review of a band responsible for a singular type of album (one of the cohesive ones, an album’s album, dear to me amongst many) which I had never before seen nor had a reasonable chance to see perform live, in whole or part, in spite of my bless’d, impressively-notched white belt. Evaluation is impossible if I weigh up the months of baseless conviction I held, ticketless, that I would attend this show, a show that sold out before those of us who take a shower, a shit or precisely count to 300 before checking the internet in the morning even had a chance. Conviction, because I needed some church, and seeing Neutral Milk Hotel for me has to be like church.

Suffice to say, I got in, and the band didn’t disappoint. Julian Koster said, “I’m happy!” Out loud, in a microphone. The crowd cheered. (One person said, “No shit!”) And Jeff Mangum didn’t disappoint; the man upholds that tenet of crowd-pleasing that a live rendition of a song should be a very similar one to the recording of that song. And, like Chris Rock thanks Kanye in 'Blame Game', we thank him for it: the cadence, the heights of notes reached, when the horns enter, and an acoustic mic’d just right. You could hear the incidental sounds of the fingers working for it against the raw material of a hollow, wooden, stringed thing. So true to the record is it, it's startling not to hear the thud of the guitar being placed on the ground as Mangum gets up to leave after he advises us all not to "hate her when she gets up to leave" at the end of 'Two-Headed Boy Pt. Two'.

If it has to be said, the cohesive album referred to earlier is In The Aeroplane Over The Sea. And they played a lot off it. I would provide the titles of songs covered but I found that I don’t know them. Not for lack of listenership, but because of the fully immersive way I always listened to this album: in full, without visual or textual accompaniment, usually alone. The authority this type of listenership offers is that I can recite every lyric, so I can confirm that Mangum got all of them right. As well, I have no additional insight on, in 'The King Of Carrot Flowers Pts. 2 & 3', whether, “I love you Jesus Christ; Jesus Christ I love you, yes, I do” is a pro-Jesus proclamation or the Lord’s name in vain.

But this is all well and good. In his wisdom, Mangum must have some sense that the lack of gigging around such an album has amplified the need for its performance to reflect our perfect memory of it. I resent Steve Albini, as in, I would like to give him a noogie, for all but promising never to repeat the precise lyrics and phrasing in 'Billiard Player Song' I fell in love with. In fairness to Albini, few artists wear self-referential simulacrum well. It is, in fact, a suspiciously convenient principle to hold. But it is written that Mangum is unquestionably an authentic artist, as he carried out the following steps: 1. Write epic album 2. Walk away as a small army mobilises in its favour, turns, then starts chasing you down the fucking street. And now we must add the third authenticator: he came back, allowing for himself a moment to indulge in the full-bodied heart-slaying joy that is his transcendent catalogue. I found myself overwhelmingly happy for him, happy for Jeremy Barnes, happy for Scott Spillane, happy with Julian. This wasn’t my church at all, my church was burned each time I had privately listened to the record. This was theirs.

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