On a London stage in October 1998, the four members of Athens band Neutral Milk Hotel played their last show together. For nearly a year, they'd been on a grueling tour to support In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, an album that had become the darling of music critics across the country.
Partly inspired by the story of Anne Frank, the album's lyrics confront death and the unknowable beyond. But it was Aeroplane's music, not just its words, that captivated critics. Option magazine likened the sound to "the Minutemen fronted by John Philip Sousa during the British Invasion." Magnet, for the past 10 years one of the premier chroniclers of the independent music scene, named the album the best in its decade of existence -- a "kick-ass weeper, 40 minutes of musical vision captured on tape."
When the band transferred that vision to live performance, the reviews were similarly glowing. A Canadian music magazine described a performance in Toronto as "musical chaos." "Band members swap instruments like they're hot potatoes, changing from marching band ensemble to noise-punk quartet at the drop of a flugelhorn."
And Aeroplane resonated with fans -- especially fans sick of the Nirvana knockoffs and Lilith Fair alums jamming up "alternative" radio stations in 1998. From city to city, they crowded into smoky clubs with low ceilings, like pilgrims gathering before 19th-century evangelists. Even Rolling Stone caught on, declaring Neutral Milk Hotel the creative pinnacle of a collective of Athens musicians called Elephant 6.
At the center of all this was Jeff Mangum -- Louisiana native, Athens transplant, chief visionary for Neutral Milk Hotel and acknowledged savant of Elephant 6. Although Aeroplane was a Neutral Milk Hotel album, it was Mangum who conceived of it, who wrote the songs, who channeled the sounds in his head onto acetate. Drummer Jeremy Barnes knew this as the band left the stage that night in London. Sure, the tour may have ended, but with Mangum leading the way, the band's march toward coronation as underground rock royalty seemed assured. That night, says Barnes, "we were completely united."
Almost five years after that last concert, the members of Neutral Milk Hotel have scattered, like confetti tossed from the top of the Chrysler Building. The follow-up to Aeroplane was never recorded. There was no reunion tour. But there was no official breakup, either. Just -- nothing.
Jeff Mangum, whose sound had uplifted so many, now put out only silence. He dropped out, crisscrossing the U.S., sleeping on friends' couches, not doing much of anything. For a man whose life had been spent believing in the power of music to heal, and who saw that belief bear fruit, Mangum's artistic vanishing act has confounded his fans.
Says Barnes now: "Do you have any idea how heartbreaking it is to come home from six months on the road, completely unaware of any problems with your best friends, whom you play with, to walk up to the bar in your hometown and have an anonymous bartender say, 'Hey man, too bad about your band breakin' up; you really went for it. I was sorry to hear that it's over. What are you gonna do now?'"
For four years, I've wondered what happened to Jeff Mangum. Not because I knew him but because his collage of sound and memory helped me find some faith against my instincts.
On May 22, 1999, two weeks before his high school graduation, my 18-year-old brother Todd stayed late at the Snellville steakhouse where he worked as a waiter. He was still there at 3 a.m., hours after the restaurant had closed. He must have been sitting alone on the parking lot pavement amid the cooling asphalt scent, that perfume of late-night Southern suburb.
Then he stood up -- hair all cowlick, thin and sandy blond -- pulled his 20-gauge shotgun from the trunk of his 1978 Pontiac, put the neatly sawed-off end to his head and pulled the trigger.
My dad called me the next morning. I sat up in bed, swung my feet to the hardwood, got up and started packing. But it wasn't so much packing as an opium-drunk pacing, a shuffling of fabric, some of which, inexplicably, I first tried to iron.
During my first week home, I attempted to piece together his last few days, calling friends, overturning everything in his room, breaking into his e-mail account, looking for a diary, some piece of art. I wanted a map. There was nothing.
Todd was the fourth of seven children, dead-center middle, and he didn't exactly fit. He didn't play sports. He performed in school plays. His weight fluctuated from svelte to pudgy, which of course made him the butt of hundreds of brotherly barbs.
And yet he was probably the most easy-going and agreeable teenager I've ever known. There's even a video of his high school band's final performance of the season taken just a day before he shot himself. When they finished playing -- it was the theme from Star Wars -- he stood up with his French horn and smiled this unstoppable, proud smile that no teenage stoicism could stifle. These are moments you try to reconcile with the end.
A parent, no matter how strong her faith, never fully recovers from this sort of wound. At best, she can hope that she will see her child -- apologetic and untouched -- in some other life.
For me, his oldest brother, I gave up on God, cloud- suspended, long ago. It seemed such a sad, egotistical hoax to play on oneself, to be unwilling to grapple with the end of existence.
Work kept me going. At the time, I covered police and courts for a small newspaper in Maryland. It was my job to show up at murder scenes, to watch district attorneys re-enact death throes, stomping a foot on the chest of an imaginary victim while they tightened an imaginary belt around a strangled neck. It was my job to drive to accident scenes where 16-year-olds couldn't manage to keep their tires on the pavement. I discovered myself particularly drawn to shootings, especially the post-mortem photos of close range blasts that rearranged the facial features like some kind of sadistic makeover.
Among grievers, I found solidarity, almost a perverse happiness. We formed an ad hoc church. It felt ritualistic, as if I followed a pilgrim's footpath of those who death leaves behind.
The difference -- from the Greeks to Southern Baptists -- was that I didn't have any illusions about seeing Todd again or putting out canned tuna for some stray cat whose soul he would come back to inhabit. He was -- this wordless baby I once held -- dead.
But it's so hard to stop searching for solace when you know you'll never even listen to a phone ring the same way again. I discovered, sheepishly, a human need for mythological hope that no amount of intellectual sustenance could satisfy.
Against every conscious instinct, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea gave me some simple, mystic comfort. The album, even as its funereal horns blow, is the sound of transcending death. No, not just transcending it, but finding some underlying joy there. This is what art, at its best moments -- communicating to the individual through time, experience and language -- can do.
Aeroplane is peppered with references to Anne Frank. Her reincarnation or rescue peeks out of the songs. One song imagines her as a little boy playing piano in Spain. Still others work as dada-esque poetry that manages to convey an emotional texture, as if Mangum was working on a principle similar to Ernest Hemingway's theory of omission.
Hemingway would strip his works to the marrow, believing that the reader would intuitively understand what had been omitted and that it would communicate more than the words alone. The difference for Mangum was that he could use his voice as a weapon to cut straight into your chest.
In his music, I found both mythological nourishment and a nudge toward hope that some piece of life doesn't perish with the body and the brain.
So, of course, the one album wasn't enough. I wanted more. I'd check the websites and find postings from other fans, wondering just what happened to Jeff. But the only product Neutral Milk Hotel seemed to be producing was rumor -- of breakups, breakdowns and creative burnout. And as the products multiplied, so did my fascination with Mangum. Early last year an interview appeared in the online music publication Pitchfork. But it produced as many questions as answers.
"I went through a period, after Aeroplane, when a lot of the basic assumptions I held about reality started crumbling," Mangum said. "The songs were what I stood for. It was a representation of the platform of my mind that I stood on. And if the platform of the mind is crumbling ... then the songs go with it."
What more, I wondered, could Jeff Mangum have possibly wanted?
Any search for Mangum should start in Athens, where many of his friends and collaborators still live. But Mangum's story -- and the story of Elephant 6 and Neutral Milk Hotel -- actually begins 500 miles away, in the college town of Ruston, La.
Ruston is a sleepy burg of about 20,000 people, just off I-20 in the northern part of the state.
Twenty years ago, the city wasn't much different. Mangum was trying out for a junior high football squad. So was Will Hart. "Neither one of us found it very interesting," Hart says now. "We were the ones lagging behind." So they quit. Mangum had a drum kit, Hart a guitar.
Mangum, Hart and Mangum's grade-school friend Robert Schneider hooked up with Bill Doss, who was a few years older. Stuck in Ruston, the closest the four could get to any underground rock scene was Louisiana Tech's radio station, where they pushed to work when they were still in high school in the late-1980s.
"We were like, 'Look, we don't have that many friends ... Can we maybe come up here and do a show?'" Hart says.
The station opened up the underground rock scene to them. "We'd spend hours and hours just going through the records and pulling things out and going, 'God, this looks great! I want to hear this,'" Doss says. The four refined their tastes and discovered different musical directions. Hart rattles off the bands: the Zombies, Small Faces, Syd Barrett, Scratch Acid, Tall Dwarfs. Meanwhile, when bands came through Ruston, the four would put together opening acts with friends.
It was a classic creative pressure cooker. They did what groups of friends did in Athens in the early 1980s -- the same things that were happening in Minneapolis and Seattle.
Sealed off from commercial concerns, the teenagers were free to bounce sounds off one another's heads, support and shape the music their tiny community made. As far back as high school, they would spend nights making "records" for one another -- often just yelped onto hand-held cassette recorders. Onto each tape, they'd scrawl the phrase "Elephant 6."
"To me, it was a spirit thing, especially," Hart says of E6. "'Listen to the music inside yourself and don't give up.' It's real. A lot of people saw it as a logo or a catchphrase, and it was that, maybe. But it's more than that."
Much more, Mangum would explain in the Pitchfork interview. "When we started doing the Elephant 6 thing, we had a very utopian vision that we could overcome anything through music. The music wasn't just there for entertainment: We were trying to create some sort of change. We had a desire to transform our lives and the listeners' lives."
The four believed in Elephant 6 as an ethos, because even as they went separate directions -- Schneider to Denver, Mangum, Hart and Doss eventually to Athens -- they each formed bands and began making music. Doss and Hart formed Olivia Tremor Control with Mangum on drums. Mangum formed Neutral Milk Hotel, a name he created out of his old moniker, Milk Studios, with Hart and Doss rounding out the trio. Meanwhile, in Denver, Schneider formed Apples in Stereo and began putting out singles in 1993, through The Elephant 6 Recording Co.
And Mangum would soon leave Athens to join Schneider in Denver, camping out in a friend's walk-in closet near Schneider's home as the two recorded Neutral Milk's first album, 1996's On Avery Island.
It proved a record of pop promise, lyrics in streams of dark consciousness, Mangum's voice caught somewhere in the middle of the mix, jammed between fuzz bass and organs. A few critics caught on to it, most notably Greg Kot in the Chicago Tribune who hailed Avery Island as one of the albums that made rock music matter in 1996.
Scott Spillane and I are sitting on the stoop of a house he's building for himself in Athens. Just yesterday, he'd cut open his right hand while he was building a shed in the front yard. Maybe that accounts for his dour mood, or maybe it's just the thousand mosquitoes, dive-bombing for blood and buzzing white noise around us.
Spillane is only 37, but his impossibly thick, gray beard -- red at the sideburns -- makes him look 20 years older. A Louisiana native himself, he first met Mangum in Ruston. They even played in a band together called Clay Bears. But it wasn't until their paths crossed in Austin, Texas, that Spillane became part of Neutral Milk's narrative.
At the time, Spillane worked the nightshift at a Gumby's Pizza and "sort of" lived in his van. "I was just getting by day to day," he says between chain-smoked Camels. "I didn't really think about it."
That changed one night in 1996, when Mangum came to tell him he was leaving for New York City to rehearse material for the Avery Island tour. He had already picked up multi-instrumentalist Julian Koster and drummer Barnes.
"At 2 o'clock in the morning, all the drunks order pizza, and I was the only one in the store, so I was like, 'Come back here and help me throw this dough,'" Spillane says. "I just taught him how to put the sauce on the pizza. After about 45 minutes of that, it calmed down, and we went outside to smoke a cigarette and he said, 'Man, this job sucks. You should come with me to New York.'"
The next day, Spillane put in his notice and two weeks later caught a Greyhound headed for Koster's grandmother's basement/practice space/crash pad on Long Island. On weekends, they'd camp out at Koster's apartment in the city. "There was five of us, a dog, a cat living there, in one room, about the size of that van," Spillane says, gesturing at a faded crimson, full-size van sitting on his front lawn.
They spent most of that year opening for bands as heralded as Superchunk and as forgotten as the Supreme Dicks and Butterglory.
"Thinking about it now, I guess there were a lot of times that we had no money, and we were out in the middle of nowhere, and we were getting into fights because we didn't have any money and we were out in the middle of nowhere," Spillane says.
After the tours, Spillane eventually moved to Athens, where Mangum, his girlfriend Laura Carter, and Koster all lived with a handful of others in a rambling home on Grady Street. It's there that Mangum, strumming chords in the echo of the bathrooms, worked out much of the material for what would become Elephant 6's definitive statement -- In the Aeroplane Over the Sea -- a work lyrically inspired by Frank's life, death and re-birth. Other passages, Carter says, were phrases that had been trapped in notebooks for years, and still others were noun-verb splices that, added up, equaled what Magnet described as "a perilous landscape in which innocence must confront surreal dehumanization."
In the summer of 1997, when Spillane received Mangum's call from Denver where he and Schneider were already working on Aeroplane, it didn't take much to convince him to re-join Neutral Milk's players.
"He said he'd feed me and buy me cigarettes for however long it took," Spillane says. "So we ate rice and tofu with barbecue sauce on it every day for a month. We didn't do anything else then, except play a video game or two."
And work 14-hour days. Schneider and Mangum upgraded the production quality from Avery Island, even as the band ad-libbed its way through much of the music.
Schneider says Mangum arrived with the songs, but when the rest of the players showed up, everyone was free to try whatever they could pick up.
"I would generate a lot of ideas and record a lot of stuff, and most of the time, Jeff would veto it," Schneider says. "He would always have feelings. Like one night he dreamed about Tibetan monks chanting. The next day he said, 'I want to have something that sounds like the way that felt.'"
It proved, Schneider continues, a pressure-filled production. Mangum didn't want to hear anything that resembled anything he had heard before, even stylistically. He discouraged Schneider from using techniques and textures with which he was comfortable.
At the same time, Mangum didn't want to crowd Aeroplane with too many sounds.
"[He] has a real strong sense of what's cool, and for him, cool is very weird, like out of left field, like something you've never heard before on a record," Schneider says. "At the same time, because there was the restriction of not having too many things going on, it was important to make everything really special and neat."
The melodies were often the best parts of a series of different songs spliced together.
"He often would write songs that didn't go anywhere, or maybe he didn't think they went far enough, to a new level or whatever, and then he'd have that song, and then six months later, he'd write another song with a different melody," Carter says. "Well, eventually, he'd chop all those apart and rearrange everything, so that this melody was taken and put over here in this song."
During the recording, Schneider and Mangum were sleeping in rooms next to one another. Schneider's wife, Hilarie Sidney, would wake up in the middle of the night and hear her husband and Mangum talking in their dreams to one another through the bedroom walls, or Schneider calming his cohort during a nightmare.
Meanwhile, Koster, who played banjo, accordion and the singing saw, Spillane, who played horns, and Barnes, on drums and organ, all rose to meet the vision of the record, Carter says.
"None of us were professional musicians on any level, except Jeremy [Barnes]," Carter notes. "Scotty [Spillane] learned to play the trumpet so fast and beautifully, with no teacher, no experience, no nothing, just because he ... understood the goal and everybody believed in it."
The players themselves sometimes have a difficult time explaining why In the Aeroplane retains its vitality, but there remains a unanimous appreciation for simply being part of it.
"I was thinking that I felt very lucky to be involved, and it was one of the things that I've done that justifies my existence," Spillane says.
"There's just such a crumbling, tragic element to Aeroplane," says Carter, who contributed on the record. "But ... the descriptions of tragedy are beautiful, and then it's like overcoming that."
It's not just overcoming. It's finding optimism within tragedy.
In "Oh Comely," the album's eighth track, Siamese twins are freezing to death in the woods. One calms the other with the knowledge that they will be warm again together in an animal's stomach: "Goldaline my dear, we will fold and freeze together, far away from here, there is sun and spring and green forever, but now we move to feel, for ourselves inside some stranger's stomach, place your body here, let your skin begin to blend itself with mine."
On the next track, "Ghost," Mangum sings: "And one day in [New York City] a girl fell from the sky, from the top of a burning apartment building 14 stories high, and when her spirit left her body how it split the sun, I know that she will live forever, all goes on and on and on" -- a theme that repeats itself.
Other lyrics hinted at what friends discreetly describe as Mangum's "chaotic" childhood: "Your mom would stick a fork right into Daddy's shoulder, and your dad would throw the garbage all across the floor. ... Your mom would sink until she was no longer speaking, and Dad would dream of all the different ways to die, each one a little more than he could dare to try."
"Sounds pretty bad on that record doesn't it?" says James Mangum, Jeff's dad and a retired economics professor. "His mother and I didn't get along, and we divorced when Jeff was 14. But the kids never got caught in between us as far as our fighting was concerned. They just always came No. 1, no matter how badly we fought. But some of [the album] was autobiographical. Some of it, I don't understand. He starts talking about it, well, 'I looked for a thousand ways to die' or something like that. I didn't know that he interpreted it that way. The way I interpreted the record, he was on my side, so to speak, but sympathetic."
The tour that followed the release of Aeroplane started out like many of the Avery Island dates. But as the album found its way into the hands of critics and fans, the crowds grew. After months of touring, Neutral Milk Hotel was filling venues as large as the Bowery Ballroom in New York City.
"People who were going through hard times were really drawn to the band in ways like, 'You're our savior!'" Carter says.
Life on the road became much easier and crowd reactions devotedly attentive. "I remember sitting in the van one time [in Chicago] and thinking, 'God, if you're going to take me, take me now, because that show put the cap on it,'" Spillane says.
When they co-headlined with Olivia Tremor Control, all the members of both bands would often wind up on stage for finales, ending shows in cacophonic glory.
"It was insane," Hart says of a show in Norway. "Shit was falling all over the place. It was just so much fun, and people were catching on to the interest."
Carter says Mangum had always imagined himself an underground icon, but the attention grew to be too much. He became sick of talking about himself, and being asked to interpret his cryptic lyrics. By the end of the tour, he was refusing to answer the phone. But despite his disdain for the star-making process, he was obsessed with his own press and what fanzines and websites were saying about him.
"He's as self-conscious about what anyone says about him as Madonna," Carter says. "He would obsessively surf the e-mail and follow every chat room, and when people would say stuff about him, it would really upset him. It was personal like, 'They're saying this, and it's not true!'"
For a few precious months, Elephant 6 was the next big thing. Major labels began approaching both Neutral Milk Hotel and Olivia Tremor Control, which Doss and Hart still captained.
"It was time for him to have photo shoots every week or get off the pot," Carter jokes. Mangum decided to stop.
After the final show in England, he shut down. Carter would go to work in the morning and come home and find Mangum just sitting around. She would ask him what he had done during the day, and he'd tell her "nothing." He meant it, literally nothing, not writing songs, not watching television, not talking on the phone, not playing video games. In 1999, he even turned down a slot opening for R.E.M. during the band's Atlanta dates.
Mangum became consumed with wingnut Art Bell's radio rants and the possibility of Y2K cataclysm. He argued vehemently against Carter even going out on New Year's Eve 1999. She still has bags of rice he was stockpiling on top of her refrigerator.
Carter believes it was a frightening time for him. Mangum spent days wearing the same shoddy house slippers, pacing back and forth between his home and a local Dunkin' Donuts.
When he would agree to be interviewed, which became more and more rare, he would make up whatever sounded the most fun when asked what he would be doing next.
"He didn't know," says Carter. Even when she's relating tough memories, she smiles perpetually and giggles out half her sentences, as if everything has achieved some ironic distance. "What is he going to say? 'Nothing. I'm going to shuffle back and forth between Dunkin' Donuts, scratching my ass and panicked'? You can't tell people that. Nobody wants to look like they're floundering and clueless about their future. It's a terribly scary place for him to be when he doesn't know when he'll get any inspiration again."
By August 2000, Mangum had split with Carter, and was unable or unwilling to write new music. He left America for the twice-a-decade Koprivshtitsa folk-music festival in Bulgaria, an event that Macha lead singer Josh McKay had touted to Mangum. The Bulgarian songs, which seem to come more from the nose and the throat than typical western styles, are a shared history and language of the Bulgarian people, who have been oppressed by a string of conquerors over the centuries. Though incomprehensible to those who don't speak Bulgarian, the music manages to convey a soulfulness that defies the language barrier. In many ways, the style evokes the penetrating quality of Mangum's own voice.
McKay and Mangum met at the festival to make field recordings of what they heard -- a gathering of thousands of Bulgarians from around the country to a small mountain town that had set up seven stages along a quarter-mile of the ridges surrounding it.
"It was intense," McKay says. "Because this isn't just like a flat surface where you can see each stage extending down the end of the range. It's up and down and sideways. He and I would literally pass each other in a sprint to get over to something we heard bouncing off the side of one hill over there, hence the tone of the recording that he put out, sort of this mad barrage of sound."
Mangum made a strangely hypnotic sonic document from his experiences there, which Carter put out through her label, Orange Twin Records.
But back from Bulgaria, he had a hard time finding a home. He kicked around Athens for a time and, according to Pitchfork, floated from project to project, constructing what he referred to in an e-mail message as "a simple life."
It may indeed be simple, but it's also been hard to trace. In trying to track him down through friends, I get the impression I've wandered into Wonkaville, only without the malice. One Mangum pal said he was in Nova Scotia, another said Arizona, still another said New York City.
"I was fairly convinced that he was taking a hot air balloon trip across the Atlantic Ocean, but I guess that's not the case either," Schneider says.
For a time, he did host a show for the non-commercial, freeform radio station WFMU in Jersey City, N.J. Under the name "Jefferson," he took a 3-6 a.m. shift and would literally play single keys of music for hours at a stretch.
Carter claims Mangum hasn't worked a day since Neutral Milk's final concert. In their last phone conversation, she asked Mangum what he was doing. He told her he was going to be a sculptor.
"Really?" Carter asked. "That's great! What medium?"
"I don't know yet," Mangum said. "I'm thinking bronze."
It wouldn't surprise her, she says, if he told her he was blasting off for the moon, but "he's crazy in a beautiful way. When he knows what he wants, he has ambition and drive and focus, and he just goes right there. But when he doesn't know what he wants, he just swims in the ocean with no direction."
Mangum's been gone so long that critics and fans have pronounced Elephant 6 all but dead. There are no reunion rumors, and Aeroplane receives next to zero radio airplay.
Yet sales remain robust. Chapel Hill, N.C.-based Merge Records, which released the album, won't disclose sales figures, but Aeroplane remains among distributor Touch & Go's top 50 sellers every month, says Nathan Cowings, a direct sales representative with the company.
"I don't know how people keep finding out about it," he says.
Eric Levin, the owner of Criminal Records in Little Five Points, echoes Cowings. In the Aeroplane and On Avery Island wiggle into the top sellers every week, just like the Pixies' Doolittle and an anthology from seminal punk band Minor Threat.
"I guess it's just essential listening," Levin says. "I have no idea. It's shocking. It sells every week, and I don't mean one or two."
Beyond receiving periodic royalty checks from Merge, Neutral Milk band members have moved on. Spillane works construction and plays occasional gigs in Athens with a band called the Gerbils. Carter says Koster is collaborating on a project with Hedwig and the Angry Inch creator John Cameron Mitchell. Barnes lives in England, where he just put out a new album with the avant spacey group Broadcast.
Other Elephant 6'ers continue to make critically heralded music -- Doss for Sunshine Fix and Hart with Circulatory System. Both are working on new albums. Schneider chugs along with Apples in Stereo and has a new side project, Ulysses, that played Athens last month and plans to record. Carter, who is a central figure in another Elephant 6 band, Elf Power, is helping build a 150-acre eco-development outside Athens.
I finally tracked Mangum down in mid-August. He was, he wrote, in New York City, hopping between friends' apartments. An e-mail I sent earlier in the month, went unanswered until I found his father, who now lives in Baton Rouge. The capitalization and punctuation in Mangum's response have been corrected:
"I am flattered that you want to talk me, but I have to say no. I wish you the very best in everything you do. But please do not contact my family. I think [my dad] was caught off guard by you, and maybe even a little intrigued at first, but now he is left wondering how a perfect stranger could know about his painful past. I don't wish to revisit the past either."
I kept trying, outlining for him my reasons for writing about him. But he didn't budge. "Please," he wrote, "I'm not an idea. I am a person, who obviously wants to be left alone. If my music has meant anything to you, then you'll respect that.
"Since it's my life and my story, I think I should have a little say as to when it's told. I haven't been given that right."
He's wrong, of course. It's not just his story. It's Spillane's and Carter's. It's mine, too. I count it as Todd's postscript to me -- not a line to something so circumscribed and history-plagued as religion, just a few generous strands of the transcendental to grasp.
In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, like other great works of art -- no matter how obscure -- has grown beyond the grasp of its creator.
When Aeroplane was released, Briana Whyte, a high school student from Edgewater, Md., was just 12. She first heard it in a friend's car. Then she bought it as a Christmas present and kept it for herself.
"No matter how many times I hear it, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is always a deeply personal experience," Whyte says in an e-mail. "It is emotional without putting on airs; it is raw without ruining the melody. I can't really explain why I feel so connected to Neutral Milk Hotel songs. Perhaps they conjure up images from scenes that I've lived in dreams ... or maybe it just speaks to the slightly deranged."
On a Neutral Milk Hotel fan website called sadtomato.net [see note below], Whyte wrote that she wants to build a "hermitage in the woods for ... Mangum. People could live in tents about a mile away from his place. When [his new music] is unveiled, the tentdwellers will spontaneously combust in holy terror, and the forest fires shall be a sign to the international community that Neutral Milk Hotel, or something more inconceivably beautiful, has returned."
Certainly, none of Mangum's friends doubt he will one day return. Carter says Mangum's dream is to be like Soft Machine founder and noted eccentric Robert Wyatt -- to drop off the face of the earth for 10 years and come back with another brilliant record. "I would imagine that's exactly what he'll do. But it will take 10 years of fragments before he's accumulated enough."
Hart says Mangum still picks up the guitar.
"Because I've known him for so long, I kind of understand where he's coming from," Hart says. "I'll say, 'Have you been writing stuff?' because I'll come in and hear him strum a song, and he'll say, 'Oh. It's not finished and I'm just having fun.' And I'll say, 'Oh. It sounded good, man,' just try to be encouraging.
"I don't know if he wants to do anything else. I've pushed him a few times, like, 'You know what you need to do, you need to just sit down with a guitar and just record acoustic. It'd be great.' He'd say, 'Oh, yeah,' and just change the subject."
In the Pitchfork interview, Mangum gave his own explanation for why he stopped writing: "I guess I had this idea that if we all created our dream we could live happily ever after. So when so many of our dreams had come true and yet I still saw that so many of my friends were in a lot of pain ... I saw their pain from a different perspective and realized that I can't just sing my way out of all this suffering.
"I realized that I wanted to take a deeper look at life in order to become kind of a truly healing force in people's everyday lives."
What Mangum doesn't seem to realize is that, with Aeroplane, he did just that. Ending suffering was never possible; it was the moments in which Aeroplane lessened it that remain profound achievements of artistic faith. Maybe once Mangum understands that, he'll resurface again.
Editor's note March 4, 2009: The fan site is no longer in operation. We've removed the hyper link to sadtomato.net as it has been labeled a suspicious website by Google.