When Breaking Up Is Smart To Do

Miles Raymer assesses the unlikely success of Neutral Milk Hotel:

[This week], the indie-rock group Neutral Milk Hotel announced that it will be playing a series of live dates this fall. If you’re not familiar with the band (which would be forgivable considering the level of obscurity that they’ve maintained over the years), you might wonder why it is that this news is being breathlessly reported not only on blogs devoted to the exploits of obscure indie rock bands, but at major news outlets like USA Today and the Huffington Post. How is it, you might ask, that the reunion of a band who released two albums in the ’90s (only one of which anyone actually cared about), and broke up in 1999 to complete deafening silence outside of the small community of fans who’d flocked around the previous year’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, could be such a big deal? …

Neutral Milk Hotel’s breakup was, career-wise, the best move it could have possibly made. Without a band around to promote [In The Aeroplane Over The Sea], the album relied on word of mouth to find its audience, giving the burned copies of it that would pass from hand to hand a kind of samizdat allure, and making its discovery a more meaningful personal experience. (Neutral Milk Hotel and its fans are all about the meaningful personal experience.) And soon after the split, the group’s mastermind Jeff Mangum essentially went into hiding, which added a Salinger-like element of mystery and mythology to the entire package. The more that Mangum stayed underground, the more anticipation his fans had for the messianic return they imagined in their heads.