The year is 1997. Inside a small coffee shop known as Jittery Joe’s on Washington Street in Athens, GA. Jeff Mangum of Neutral Milk Hotel takes the stage with an acoustic guitar and no prepared set list. The crowed is loud and annoying aside from a few people who Jeff interacts with from time to time. At this point in time, Neutral Milk Hotel had not yet achieved the level of notoriety their seminal 1998 album In The Aeroplane Over the Sea would grant them. People had heard several of the album’s songs, yet no one knew their names. There was no talk of a 15-year musical hiatus, or Jeff’s reclusiveness. Websites like Find Jeff Mangum, and obsessive conspiracy theories involving time travel and Ann Frank (Who may or may not be Jeff’s wife) had yet to come into existence. Above all else, the world had yet to hear the disturbing, inspiring, and music changing indie rock ballad that is “Oh Comely.” On this night Jeff would unveil it on the world.
Jeff saves “Oh Comely” for the final song in his set, after playing through a number of the band’s underground and more mainstream works with nothing more than his acoustic guitar. And introduction to the song takes place at the tail end of the previous track, known then as “Up and Over” later to be retitled “The King of Carrot Flowers, Part II.” It’s interesting to listen to this instruction in retrospect because Jeff is so humble, completely unaware of the impact he will have on indie rock. “This will be my last song… I have a record coming out soon if I understand correctly… that you all should check out.” Jeff starts to re-tune his guitar, stating, “I wrote this song at Christmas time, though it’s not a very Christmassy song, it’s called ‘Oh Comely,’ and it’s about a lot of different things and it kind of relates back to that family I am obsessed with, but we don’t really need to get into that.”
Jeff hits the first chord of the song, and repeats it over and over again, longer than he does on the album version of the track until it becomes hauntingly hypnotizing. A baby cries. This baby has cried several times on the album, at perfect times that make it feel intentional, as if the baby knew something the audience didn’t. Some NMH fans have called this baby annoying, but given the meaning behind many of the lyrics, and the creepy — often disturbing sounds of the song, it becomes a positive element of the live performance that help make this album and this live version of the song a must listen. Throughout the entire album, people in the coffee shop can be heard mumbling as though they could care less about the relatively unknown performer. Jeff sings through the infamous 8 minute song with intensity, yelling at times, and being beautiful silent at others — never taking a single break or pause. By the end the performance the entire crowed is silent, the listener is emotional drained. The baby makes a noise, Jeff says goodnight, the crowed cheers loudly, and the rest is history.
The entire album is available on vinyl from Amazon, and I’m sure your mom and pop record shop can order a copy from distributors.
One More Note: Also listen to Jeff’s cover of the 1961 song “I Love How You Love Me” recorded at the same performance, it is one of my favorite tear-inducing tracks, and will work well on a mix tape for your significant other. The emotion is phenomenal.