BY JONATHAN VALANIA In 1998, Neutral Milk Hotel released an album of hallucinatory folk-rock called In The Aeroplane Over The Sea that is, it can be said without fear of exaggeration, nothing short of a heartbreaking work of staggering genius. Like Pet Sounds or My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless or Love’s Forever Changes, it is lightning caught in a bottle, one of those rare perfect albums that come along maybe once a decade. Or once a lifetime. In 1999, Jeff Mangum — Neutral Milk’s singer, songwriter and primary guitarist — disappeared from public life without explanation, declining all entreaties to perform or discuss the album or record a follow-up. Over the course of his decade-long Salinger-like hermitage, succeeding generations of Holden Caulfield-types have discovered and come to revere the album, and as such it has become something like The Catcher In The Rye of indie-rock. Four years ago, Mangum emerged from seclusion and started performing again, refusing to offer any explanation for his mysterious disappearance or sudden return and denying all interview requests. Late last night I got the scoop of the century: A phone call from Jeff Mangum. That’s like getting a phone call from JD Salinger — dude does NOT talk to the phonies in the media. The call came in the middle of last night, thank god I record all my phone conversations for the benefit of future historians. It went like this:
PHAWKER:Hello? Who is this?
JEFF MANGUM: It’s Jeff.
JEFF MANGUM: Ha! Keep dreaming. No, Mangum. Jeff Mangum.
PHAWKER: Jesus, what the fuck time is it?
JEFF MANGUM: Four in the morning.
PHAWKER: Four in the…Are you drunk dialing me?
JEFF MANGUM: Kinda sorta.
PHAWKER: Every journalist would give his left testicle to interview you. Why are you talking to me?
JEFF MANGUM: You are the only one who answered his phone.
PHAWKER: Why did you go away after In The Aeroplane Over The Sea?
JEFF MANGUM: Don’t ruin this for me.
PHAWKER: OK OK, I’m sorry. Um, have you been writing new songs?
JEFF MANGUM: Every day.
PHAWKER: Can I hear the new songs?
JEFF MANGUM: No.
JEFF MANGUM: That’s not why I wrote them.
PHAWKER: How many are there?
JEFF MANGUM: Multitudes.
PHAWKER: How many?
JEFF MANGUM: Enough to release a new album every year from now until the year 2525.
PHAWKER: If man is still alive.
JEFF MANGUM: Don’t put words in my mouth. That’s why I left.
PHAWKER: What do you mean?
JEFF MANGUM: So many words were put in my mouth it took me 10 years to swallow them.
PHAWKER: Will these new songs ever be released?
JEFF MANGUM: Yes, but not until everyone now living is dead.
PHAWKER: What about the rumor that you were Raptured?
JEFF MANGUM: That’s above your pay grade.
PHAWKER: What is the meaning of life?
JEFF MANGUM: Strawberry Fields forever.
PHAWKER: I thought so.