Ahead of Jeff Mangum’s long-awaited, reclusion-breaking Dublin show, Cormac Duffy looks at myth and music, and why we too often confuse the two
If you’ve ever heard Jeff Mangum’s name as the genius behind Neutral Milk Hotel, there will be a few things you’ll associate it with: a wailing, emphatic voice, gloriously shambolic instrumentation, more hipster jokes than you will ever need, and a riveting backstory.
The tale behind his Mangum opus, 1998’s In The Aeroplane Over The Sea, is one of music’s great creation myths, with threads of reclusiveness, rumoured schizophrenia and Anne Frank’s ghost. I already fear I am adding to the wasteful surplus of ink spilled about it, so I won’t elaborate. Research it if you’re unaware, but make sure to take the fawning purple prose it generates with a pinch of salt.
Yes, too much of what is written about the album latches onto this fable rather than its sonic qualities, but it’s not alone. Whether it’s the pioneering recordings of Robert Johnson, the enduring mystique of Charles Manson’s otherwise benign albums, or even the narrative-linked confessionals of Hospice or For Emma, Forever Ago, music is too often sown to its purported circumstances and backstory. It doesn’t even need to involve Satanism, murder, or woodland isolation. To be a musician living a double life as tabloid fodder is to see your personal life warped into an infallible lens for viewing your oeuvre. If you want to interpret the latest Cheryl Cole single, you’re better set with OK! than with a investigative handbook.
How we lean on these myths says a lot about us as fans. Put simply, is the tragic arc of an album’s narrative, deafeningly amplified by real life inspiration, the music lover’s answer to a spontaneous soap opera tram crash?
These albums are so prevalent because they have these easily spread chunks of info attached to them. No one wants to hear about the emotionally content bard who just wrote a very inventive cadence; tell us about the rock star who drove his motorbike off a hotel roof into a swimming pool of brown M&Ms, or the bluesman who sold his soul to the Based God at a T-junction. That’s someone we’ll remember.
Faced with something I love as much as Mangum’s work, I’m resigned to a less reductionist spin. Maybe our yearning to know what every note of music means comes from our will to connect with the performer on some personal level. It would certainly explain why we cling onto these myths, regardless of how false they might be, hoping they will be musical Rosetta Stones, bringing us one iota closer to that elusive truth.