The weird, welcome return of Jeff Mangum

How Neutral Milk Hotel's enigmatic lead came back from the void, sort of

Shortly after 10 p.m. on Oct. 6, 2011, a blurry video began making its way around the Internet. It started as a live stream on the independent media site Global Revolution. Then the Kentucky-based music blog You Ain't No Picasso posted still images, followed by the video, which eventually ended up on the almighty Pitchfork. Rife with smeared movements and time lags, the camera's dull gaze remained fixed on a man with an acoustic guitar, singing and strumming into the night air. A crowd held in rapt attention bustled in the periphery, just off screen, as the thunderous volume of their applause seemed to shake the camera to pieces every few minutes.

This was Zuccotti Park near New York City's financial district — Wall Street. At a glance it could have been any number of busking folk singers seen throughout the myriad handheld Occupy videos circulating the Web. But the instant those belting words and heart-swelling melodies rang out, gravity took hold: "They keep themselves hidden away," he sang. "They keep themselves upon the hill, afraid they'll have to pay for all the crimes upon their head, and all the men who learned to hate them."

It's the Minutemen song "Themselves" channeled through the gossamer voice of Jeff Mangum. Like a thief in the night, the reclusive singer, guitarist, and songwriter that led Athens' legendary "fuzz-folk" rockers Neutral Milk Hotel had the Occupy crowd wrapped around his finger. Before leading an impromptu sing-along, Mangum indulged the street scene. "I'm here to serve you," he announced like an actor on stage. "What do you want to hear?"

From there he barreled into a 35-minute set that included "Holland, 1945," "Two-Headed Boy pt. 2," and "Oh Comely" from Neutral Milk's second album, and masterpiece, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. Each song during the bare-bones performance is wrought with emotional ups and downs. The seductive melodies are as thrilling and buoyant as ever.

This hardly fits the profile of Mangum, the mystery man that so many fans have obsessed over for years. On paper he's a lightning rod for speculation: Is he a Syd Barrett-style mental case? A timid soul who got spooked by the specter of everything that comes along with indie rock stardom? Or is he just a normal guy who quit the music business when Neutral Milk Hotel was at a breaking point? Because he grants no interviews, there are no answers when it comes to the strange case of Jeff Mangum. But the truth, like everything in life, most likely falls somewhere in the middle.

Regardless of what's going on in his head, Mangum is back on his own terms — playing the songs that made him a legend — which may be why the ideals of the Occupy movement strike a chord with him. When asked to identify himself for the more than 4,000 viewers that tuned in for the live stream of his performance on computer screens around the world he simply stated, "Oh hello, I'm Jeff from Neutral Milk Hotel," like it was no big deal at all.

After dissolving Neutral Milk Hotel in 1998, without offering a peep as to why he did it, Mangum has stayed far from public view. In 2005, he joined his pre-Neutral Milk bandmates in the Olivia Tremor Control for a show at the Bowery Ballroom, sending tremors throughout the indie rock world. The following year he surfaced on stage during an Elf Power show at the Knitting Factory. Since then he's been known to show up during random concerts with his Elephant 6 compadres, but his presence is almost ghostlike on stage. Rarely does he draw attention to himself, and he tends to slip in and out of the scene with little acknowledgement from the rest of the performers.

But with the Occupy video something changed. Mangum's spirits were visibly high, and he looked comfortable there in front of all of those people on the street. He even cracked a joke after one heckler's request to "play some Dylan!" His response: "I only know three chords, my friend. Haven't you noticed?"

In a way, wandering out and performing for the protestors was his implied press conference, marking his return. One month later, almost to the day, Mangum announced a string of East Coast dates before heading off to Minehead, England, where he's curating this year's All Tomorrow's Parties fest. Soon after those dates were announced, his name appeared on the Coachella bill for April, along with more tour dates scheduled along the way.

With such high-profile gigs on the horizon, there's a sense that Mangum has snapped out of it — although defining "it" is anyone's guess. Therein lies the true beauty of Jeff Mangum's opulent folk-pop journeys and psychedelic narratives. In life, as in his art, there is a mystery that remains concealed behind the curtain, often yielding greater truths about the listener than the man himself.

When Mangum finished his Occupy set, he turned once again to the glowing mob to thank them. "You guys have done a beautiful fucking thing," he says in an unassuming voice before the crowd throws it right back at him: "You have done a beautiful fucking thing."