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Jeff Magnum returns after years away from the spotlight

Fifteen years ago, Neutral Milk Hotel released one of the most influential and acclaimed albums in indie rock. The band broke up soon afterward, and their leader disappeared. But with a recent series of concert dates, Jeff Mangum seems to be getting his “airplane” flying again.
Modified: January 17, 2013 at 5:22 pm •  Published: January 18, 2013

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.

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