Neutral Milk Hotel’s Jeff Mangum sang of “endless revisions” as he closed down his concert Thursday at the Riviera. But those revisions have brought him no new songs. Fortunately, the old ones – written in the ‘90s – still felt volatile.
After releasing two Neutral Milk Hotel albums, “On Avery Island” (1996) and “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea” (1998), Mangum slipped away until a solo tour in 2012. His return this year with his original bandmates was played out in front of an audience that has multiplied several times over. The show Thursday was the first of two sold-out Chicago dates.
The bearded songwriter walked on stage, strapped on an acoustic guitar and then strummed it brusquely, as if to punish the strings for their epic silence. He consoled a “Two-Headed Boy,” assuring him that he would listen, even if no one else could hear him tapping on his jar. Then he time-traveled back to “Holland, 1945,” to console a child executed by the Nazis.
His songs still sounded like long streams of semi-consciousness, as if composed while waking from a strangely exhilarating if disturbing dream. He identified with misfits and outsiders, the misshapen, the forgotten and the invisible. Sex and death were closely aligned. He is still mourning Ann Frank and celebrating the “King of Carrot Flowers.” Psychologists are lining up as we speak to hear him sing.
If there is a connection to a figure from rock’s distant past, it might be Van Morrison, the Irish songwriter whose songs often resembled reveries, flowing and ebbing in and around the music.
Nobody on stage dared harmonize with Mangum, though his bandmates seemed as ecstatic as the fans were to share the concert with him. They danced and pogoed in place, or sang along off microphone. Whereas the singer’s acoustic show two years ago at the Athenaeum Theatre was a more hushed, intimate affair, this concert allowed Mangum to give free reign to his avant-garde leanings. Though his music brims with chamber-pop orchestration and psychedelic flourishes, it also telegraphed his teenage discovery of John Cage and German art-rock.
There were counterpoint flugelhorn melodies and bowed banjos. Discordant horns sent “Oh Comely” floating away uneasily, like an elegy that had shaken loose some unruly ghosts. Julian Koster’s musical saw whirled around Mangum as he sang of circling the sun. On “Song Against Sex,” drummer Jeremy Barnes sounded like he was bashing out a different song than the one Mangum chose to sing, his words spilling out like scurrying cartoon mice oblivious to the rhythm.
The shagginess was typical of many Neutral Milk Hotel songs when the band first toured in the ‘90s, and Mangum showed little interest in having it any other way. His voice – loud, forceful, occasionally wayward but aching with sincerity – cut through with disruptive power. He was looking for the deep end in each of these songs, as if refusing to treat them like nostalgia pieces. As he sang in “Gardenhead,” “We ride rollercoasters into the ocean.”
Neutral Milk Hotel set list Thursday at the Riviera:
1 Two-Headed Boy
2 The Fool
3 Holland, 1945
4 A Baby for Pree / Glow Into You
5 Gardenhead / Leave Me Alone
6 Everything Is
7 The King of Carrot Flowers Pt. One
8 The King of Carrot Flowers Pts. Two & Three
9 In the Aeroplane Over the Sea