Discuss: Jeff Mangum put out his best music after the final Neutral Milk Hotel release, 1998's coveted In the Aeroplane Over the Sea.
Granted, there really haven't been very many new recordings from Mangum, now touring recently for the first time in a decade. And the above statement depends on how you quantify what's "his" and what "put out" means. But still, it's probably true. For those curious about listening to what Jeff Mangum did after Neutral Milk Hotel, there's actually quite a lot to take in.
Neutral Milk Hotel stopped performing after a New Year's show in 1998, following an intense half-decade during which the project grew from a portable bedroom operation into a beloved national act based out of Athens, Ga. Mangum subsequently had something of a physical and emotional collapse in 1999, didn't release any new songs, developed a cult following, and only recently started singing in public again. But that's only partly what happened. Mostly, he just took a year off.
By the time Mangum hit the road playing drums with the Circulatory System in the fall of 2001, he'd already been working again for a while. Earlier in the year, he'd traveled to New Zealand with his then-girlfriend, Elf Power's Laura Carter, to go camping. While there, the pair met Chris Knox, Mangum's longtime home-recording hero and the co-founder of the Tall Dwarfs. Knox convinced Mangum to play a gig in Auckland: "At first it was a real drag," he announced of his breakdown at the show, "but I learned a lot."
Circulatory System's tour that fall was an Elephant 6 revue in the classic sense, with the collective's musicians reconfiguring into different acts. Mangum sang with Heather McIntosh's chamber-folk group, The Instruments, often kneeling onstage, his eyes closed, his powerful voice unamplified. He didn't need one, as the soaring instrument from Aeroplane and On Avery Island sliced into the rooms. At the merch table, the attendee could find a host of new Elephant 6 CDs, several of which included Mangum contributions. One of these bore the name Orange Twin Field Works.
Only inside did it contain the credit "recorded and edited by Jeff Mangum," but the disc held field recordings he'd made the summer before in Koprivshtitsa, a Bulgarian mountain village known for its traditional music festival. Over a single half-hour track, droning bells and horns melted into drums, chants, gong swarms and ancient songs with dream logic. There was an optimistic "Volume 1" appended to the title. But not long thereafter, Mangum split from Athens.
For at least a little bit of time in the fall of 2002, Mangum took over a three-hour, 3 a.m. slot on WFMU, the New Jersey freeform radio station. To begin his first show under the DJ name Jefferson, he began with a piece of new original music, seemingly an excerpt from a long sound collage. It had a snappy title: "To Animate the Body with the Cocoon of the Her Unconscious Christ the Mother Removes Her Death Body of 1910 Only To Be Reborn in the Same Spirit as a School of Blow Fish Believing in the Coming of the Milk Christ." When he announced the track, he credited it to The Long Warm Wall of Alfred Snouts.
As the title suggests, the track chopped together snorts and bleeps and yodels and accordions and church bells with rapid cuts. Mangum later released an edited version of the track under the name Korena Pang on AUX, a compilation put together by Instruments leader Heather McIntosh. He called the two minutes and 24 seconds of music an "excerpt from Dogbirthed Brother in Eggsack Delicious," but it was mostly the same: a million points of imagistic sound, featuring time and space condensed, then fire-working back out.
After the new cut by Snouts, Mangum spun the sound of a cheetah licking itself, excerpts from the Beach Boys' Smile, recordings from music therapy classes, Alain Savouret's musique concrete piece "Sonate Baroque." Another 26 or so hours of music followed during the nine editions he broadcast from the station's Jersey City headquarters, still streamable on the station's website.
As Orange Twin, Korena Pang or even DJ Jefferson, Mangum offered music that put In the Aeroplane Over the Sea into a wider, weirder context. Just as Field Works had been present in the long "Pree Sisters" epilogue of Avery Island, Alfred Snouts seemed now to retroactively lurk in Aeroplane's bouquets of green fleshy flowers and sugary sweet machines, making field recordings of his own.
Though he has hardly accepted traditional indie-dom in his return to acoustic, one-man shows, these quixotic sides of Mangum's music haven't been on display since he began to perform again last year. After all, it's not exactly stuff one can sing along to, inspires YouTube covers or makes best-of-decade lists. But it also took a long time for Mangum to get to Avery Island and Aeroplane. He made a half-dozen home-recorded cassettes before he was able to sing and write with the voice he became known for—and of which his sound collages are merely another expression.
Mangum's been sharing bills with his former bandmates again lately, too, including shows this month with Julian Koster (whose singing saw went a long way toward making Aeroplane otherworldly) and with Scott Spillane (whose mournful DIY horns did likewise). Maybe Neutral Milk Hotel will get back together at some point. It's doubtful they even know. But Jeff Mangum's voice is filling rooms again, or at least one part of it is. That's a promising start.