The stuff of rock 'n' roll legend is packed with disasters, but sometimes a disappearance can feel just as tragic.
If Kevin Shields actually delivers on that My Bloody Valentine album in 2013, it will be a full 22 years after the release of their 1991 shoegazer masterpiece, “Loveless.” Before David Bowie announced this month — on his 66th birthday, no less — that he would release a new album in March titled “The Next Day,” it was widely assumed that the Thin White Duke would not be returning. It took Brian Wilson 35 years to complete “SMILE.” And some people, like Syd Barrett and Skip Spence, never returned, their genius diverted by misadventure or madness.
But in the pantheon of indie rock, few absences resonated quite like that of Jeff Mangum. Shortly after the release of his band Neutral Milk Hotel's second album, a 1998 work of timeless ramshackle beauty called “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea,” Mangum broke up the band and walked away. Some said it was because the acclaim and attention was just too much, or because the challenge of living up to Neutral Milk Hotel's legacy was far too great. Regardless, Mangum made no public appearances for a decade after “Aeroplane.”
He was not a recluse — friends and fans reported seeing him frequently in and around Athens, Ga. — but Mangum seemed to want nothing to do with the fame that comes with rock 'n' roll mastery. He made some field recordings of Bulgarian folk music and contributed some music to The Apples in Stereo's 2006 album “New Magnetic Wonder,” but he did not record any new material of his own.
When asked by Pitchfork in 2002 if there was new music coming from Neutral Milk Hotel, he said that the windows for such opportunities “don't stay open for very long.” He went on to express a degree of disillusionment with how his mind began working after “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea.”
“I went through a period, after ‘Aeroplane,' when a lot of the basic assumptions I held about reality started crumbling,” Mangum told Pitchfork's Marci Fierman. “I think that before then, I had an intuitive innocence that guided me and that was a very good thing to a certain point. But then I realized that, to a large degree, I had kept my rational mind at bay my whole life. I just acted on intuition in terms of how I related to life. At some point, my rational mind started creeping in, and it would not shut up.”
When his rational mind piped up, the music stopped. The sadness of this stems from the fact that “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea” was the culmination point in one of the great stylistic movements in indie rock history, the Elephant 6 collective. An exploration of the Elephant 6 Recording Company's actions and influence works as an alternate history of 1990s indie rock. Bands such as Neutral Milk Hotel, Olivia Tremor Control, The Apples in Stereo, Of Montreal, Elf Power and Beulah emphasized melody and psychedelic adventurism at a time when alternative rock was going for volume.
Much of “Aeroplane,” which Mangum once said was inspired by Anne Frank's “Diary of a Young Girl,” is given a musically timeless execution — some of the instrumentation has almost no traditional rock 'n' roll components (“Fool” is a good example), but then modernity can sweep in just as quickly on tracks such as “Holland 1945.” The influence of “Aeroplane” is most keenly felt in the sea shanties and pre-rock orchestration of early Decemberists albums. It's hard to imagine albums such as “Her Majesty” or “Castaways and Cutouts” without “Aeroplane” providing the maps and charts those musical journeys.
The critical estimation of “Aeroplane” only increased during Mangum's absence, but over a decade after its release, Mangum started working his way back into performing. In 2009, he took part in a benefit concert for New Zealand-born indie musician Chris Knox, then a 10-song set for an invited audience in Brooklyn, N.Y. the following year. Two full sets in Toronto came in August 2011, then an appearance for Occupy Wall Street protesters two months later. By the time he announced a set at Coachella in 2012, it was clear that Mangum sightings were not the stuff of myths anymore.
Now, as part of a January-February 2013 solo acoustic tour, Mangum will appear Jan. 19 at ACM@UCO Performance Lab. According to his website, walkingwallofwords.com, Mangum is playing sets in places like Oklahoma City with an eye toward making them unique experiences — he does not plan to play these towns again “in the foreseeable future.”
At a time when people are so used to having everything at their disposal, any time they want, a Jeff Mangum concert in Oklahoma City, one that will only happen once, is worth every effort to see. Welcome him back, and wish him safe travels going forward.