Coachella 2012: The strange magic of Milk Hotel’s Jeff Mangum


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The biggest sing-along of Saturday night was a spare acoustic ballad about a deformed fetus.


The return of Neutral Milk Hotel’s Jeff Mangum to the public eye has been one of indie rock’s biggest surprises in recent years. Rumors abounded as to what the famously shy and intense singer-songwriter -- known for ramshackle, funeral folk built on woozy horns and Mangum’s howl -- has been up to in the decade-plus since his landmark album “In The Aeroplane Over The Sea,” and many fans reasonably never expected to see him play live again.


His Outdoor stage set was a marvel of unlikely returns, but the last song, “Two-Headed Boy,” embodied the occasion. Mangum, dressed in a newsboy cap and his face obscured by long swaths of hair, implored the already-rapt crowd to sing along for the set closer while he frantically strummed an acoustic guitar.

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Here’s what lyrics he got back -- “Two headed boy, all floating in glass / the sun it has passed, now it’s blacker than black, I can hear as you tap on your jar.” How weird and lovely that at Coachella in 2012, tens of thousands of people joined in on those lines as the start to a late-afternoon anthem?

That set closer was pretty macabre, surrealist stuff for a deep crowd full of bikinis and Wayfarers. But that’s the power of Mangum’s strange and peerless songwriting. The tune landed like a benediction, with day drinkers and beardy types and wispy girls all reverently singing back. When he tore in for the tune’s big chorus payoffs -- “In the dark we will take off our clothes and they’ll be placing fingers through the notches in your spine” -- even though the day was warm, everyone in earshot seemed to get chills.


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--August Brown