Let's get this out of the way: Jeff Mangum is not some kind of reclusive, enigmatic indie guru sitting cross-legged on a mountaintop, waiting for you to climb up and shout his lyrics at him. He's just a guy who wrote some really honest, poetic songs about love in the face of impending death, then recorded them with a bunch of his friends.
But you couldn't tell that from Mangum's solo show earlier this year, where, with a creepy grin, he turned his oddly uplifting tunes into dirges as a cult-like audience drowned him out.
The energy at last night's full-band Neutral Milk Hotel reunion at the 40 Watt was entirely different. (Here's the setlist, FWIW.) Wearing a bulky sweater, an engineer's cap pulled down low over his eyes, long hair and a mountain-man beard that made him resemble Jayson Werth, Mangum entered stage left. He seemed happy to be there—even offering a bit of stage banter from time to time—and the crowd was happy to see him. (But not too happy! Just the right amount.)
Mangum's unmistakable voice is still nasal, but it's acquired a depth and even a little raspiness that serves him well. When he wasn't singing, he'd back away from the microphone and turn toward his band, swaying as he played. Julian Koster—looking like a five-year-old who wouldn't go to bed—flailed away at bass, banjo, accordion and (yep) handsaw. Scott Spillane, joined at times by a full brass section, alternated between horn and guitar. The band's familiarity brought out their songs' sense of joy. For the first time (to me, anyway) they sounded like pop songs.
For me—and probably other people who missed out on Athens in the 1990s and came of age after a lot of their favorite bands broke up—this was a bucket-list show right up there with Olivia Tremor Control or the Pixies.
We didn't hear any new music last night (please correct me in the comments if I'm wrong), but the obvious pleasure the band members took in playing with each other after 15 years led me to wonder whether they could tour or record again.
That might take away from the Neutral Milk Hotel mystique, but it'd be a hell of a good time.