Neutral Milk Hotel are one of those musical anomalies that can mean the entire world to one person, and nothing to another. You’ll see it with global-monstrosities and you’ll see it with minuscule curios like that band you love and nobody else does. Ask one person in Vicar Street what they make of Neutral Milk Hotel and you’ll be treated to a gushing index of subjective touchstones; ask the next person and you’ll hear of a litany of annoyances which fell from the stage like dribble from a child’s mouth. All of which are equally as subjective, but nonetheless heartfelt. Naturally, with it being their gig, what you won’t find are many neutrals.
Having formed in the 80s, disbanded in the 90s and reformed in the last few years, Jeff Mangum and co. are undoubtedly one of the most influential bands to emerge, and submerge, around the blitz of indie-Americana. Tonight, however, they are a derivative, ramshackle and utterly boring version of themselves. Opening with ‘The King of Carrot Flowers pt. 1’ and following it with parts two and three, Mangum’s voice sounds shrill and badly pitched. Musically, there is little to indicate just how important this band has been…and still is. It genuinely feels as though Mangum couldn’t care less about what he’s doing and instead is leaving the band to engage in any meaningful way. Things pick up a little for ‘Holland, 1945’ but again, and as is becoming apparent, interest is fleeting on both sides of the microphone. This, obviously, isn’t the case for everybody as pockets of the crowd are enthralled to the point of delirium. Others, most others, are less than bothered.
‘Gardenhead’ lifts things to a level resembling a gig and the musical saws are out. Still, though, Mangum is elsewhere and barely moves. ‘Two Headed Boy’ and ‘The Fool’ are rousing but for ‘Naomi’ we are treated to a disinterested, high pitched murmur where vocals used to be. There is a palpable sense of distress coming from some of the crowd at this point and, not to get too sidetracked from the music, this is boring beyond words. Mangum’s voice is disintegrating in front of our very eyes and the crowd’s spurt of enjoyment when he sings “fuck your friends” during ‘Ferris Wheel on Fire’ speaks volumes about much else there is to be excited about.
The band departs after ‘Snow Song’ and return for an encore featuring ‘Ghost’, ‘Two Headed Boy’ and ‘Engine’. Thankfully all of which are full of otherwise absent energy and the mood is considerably lifted with the utterances of gratitude from each band member. This could just have been a bad night for them but it was bad to a shocking degree. Subjectively, one man’s dirt is another man’s dinner. But, objectively, this was a terrible performance and the band sounded amateurish and looked like boy-scouts without a leader. Their, or more pointedly Mangum’s, legacy is safe thanks to plaudits from other bands and an adoring fan base. If you happen to be a part of neither you still might have liked what you saw. But the air of despondency in Vicar Street’s bar after the show would suggest that this was just not NMH’s night.