Finally someone defends Jeff Mangum. In a Slate piece titled “The Salinger of Indie Rock,” Taylor Clark offers an empathetic argument on behalf of the singer/songwriter for quitting on the record biz shortly after the release of his now-classic In the Aeroplane Over the Sea.
That album has produced a book, tons of imitations, Mangum-related hoaxes, and its share of rabid fandom. These fans seem to hate the guy for not producing much in the way of a follow-up. And field recordings and one-off surprise appearances at shows don’t seem to count. But it’s enough that he made Aeroplane. It’s enough that Merge keeps it in print and has some streams on its site.
A year or so before Aeroplane‘s release, I had the pleasure of interviewing him back when he was simply putting out tapes under his moniker Neutral Milk Hotel. He seemed like a lot of young folks back then—inspired by K Records, Nirvana, and DIY Culture—who put fuzzy-sounding songs to tape. He was low key, earnest, and warm. He was just another guy who wrote songs—OK great songs—under a funny name.
I think no one wants to be crowned as some Folk Hero or be anyone’s savior. As Taylor writes in his piece, after Mangum realized that music could not erase the pain in the world—or the pain he felt—is it a surprise that he would stop putting out records? [One thing I and everyone else should stop doing is writing that he disappeared. He didn’t vanish. He simply stopped making records we could buy.There’s a difference.] Taylor writes:
“And if Aeroplane really is Jeff Mangum’s final statement to the universe, maybe we should be happy with that—not because of some tired line about going out at your peak (which he likely didn’t reach), but because his story is a kind of modern fable. Many fans see his disappearance only in selfish terms: They’ve been deprived of more great music for no good reason. They can’t understand why Mangum would shun success just to shuffle through his days, and, indeed, when musicians abandon this much promise, the culprit is usually drugs or debilitating accidents or people named Yoko. So he must have gone nuts, right? Well, no. After all, what if Mangum is just being honest? What if he poured his life into achieving musical success only to discover that it wasn’t going to make him happy, so he elected to make a clean break and move on? We should all be so crazy.”
Maybe this will be the last word on Mangum. No way.