While the smoky tenors of Vedder and Cobain might represent the 90s for the mainstream, for those who had their ears close to short span college airwaves, Neutral Milk Hotel’s 1997 release, Aeroplane Over the Sea is often declared one of the best albums of the decade.
I hold it as one of my favorite of all time.
Portland was blessed to have two Jeff Magnum appearances last week at the Crystal Ballroom, two of only a smattering of national dates, including two weekend shows at Coachella in California.
Until this year, NMH’s lead singer, Jeff Magnum, has largely led a Salinger-esque life-style, with few public appearances. His quick rise to fame—and subsequent disappearance—has cast an almost mythical deification around the songwriter and his work, which, it can be argued, is well founded.
On Aeroplane, Magnum weaves otherworldly imagery, arising from dreams about Anne Frank, into lovingly crafted and loosely connected songs (chapters, poems?) touching on themes from fairy-tales, the bible, hushed family dysfunction, and surrealistic eroticism. Couple this literate scope with Magnum’s pitch perfect, reverberate tenor—and a cadre of back-up musicians with counter-point instrumental solos that would make memorable songs in themselves—and you have a record that still holds mystery, thousands of listens later.
On to the show…
I had only moderate expectations upon arriving at the Crystal Ballroom last Thursday, but returned home unable to sleep for several hours, energized and trying to replay the night over in my head. It was an orchestrated, but humble affair, with Magnum mostly solo on stage, and a collection of acoustics at his arms length, accented with his signature mix of light distortion.
Magnum’s voice hits your soul like a campfire: melting you from the front, and keeping you alive with cold gusts and shivers in the back. Hearing it live was absolutely better than the recording, another thing I wasn’t necessarily expecting.
And as most concertgoers can attest, a live performance can be exponentially heightened or ruined by the crowd, and in this case, the audience was almost universally rabid, attentive and jovial. It basically felt like 1,000s of people who had been cooped up in their cars and tiny rooms, singing NMH songs to themselves for years, until one day they were finally re-united with their tribe, and were exuberant to finally encounter the object of their obsession.
The audience became bombastic during the classics, and sang (yelled) along to every word, sometimes even swinging their arms in the air.
Magnum played nearly every song from Areoplane, along with a few from Avery Island and… a Daniel Johnston cover of True Love Will Find You in the End. He was joined on stage by the openers Andrew, Scott and Laura (fellow members of Elephant 6 Collective bands Elf Power and The Gerbils) with French horn, mellophone, clarinet, cello, accordion and even midi electronic saxophone!
I’ve attached some of the songs below. The photo above was taken by someone I randomly met there who was daring enough to get that close to the stage. I know there was no flash, so hopefully this is somewhat forgivable.
The night ended with my favorite song Aeroplane Over the Sea. I cover this song a lot, and play it as an instrumental at weddings. Even brides, who’ve never heard it before, often go for it, which says a lot about its melodic integrity.
It was an ecstatic ending: The Crystal Ballroom’s strange carnival-noir murals set the perfect backdrop for this song’s lyrics, really all of his lyrics.
It’s a near impossible feat for an artist that is so well loved, and with an audience to rabid, to play the anti-rockstar. But the whole thing felt pure, uncorrupted, cathartic.
Famous last words:
“When we meet on a cloud, I’ll be laughing out loud. I’ll be laughing with everyone I see; how strange it is to be anything at all.”