On April 29, The Smiths officially became the last hopelessly broken-up indie-rock band when its successor in the uncomfortable-level-of-emotion sweepstakes, Neutral Milk Hotel, announced its first tour in 15 years. Strangely, though, what surely would have been treated as a miracle resurrection a decade ago didn’t feel like much of a bombshell three weeks ago.
That’s partly because the notoriously reclusive Mangum has been performing solo sets regularly for over two years, on increasingly major stages and mostly featuring material from Neutral Milk Hotel’s two albums, 1996’s On Avery Island and 1998’s In The Aeroplane Over The Sea.
But it also wasn’t surprising because, for anyone who’s interested in this corner of the music world, the announcement probably just felt like the next logical step in a current white-hot streak of indie-rock Hall Of Fame bands “shocking” fans with announcements of amends and future plans. Next to debating the merits of Kickstarter, one of the online indie-rock community’s newest pastimes is campaigning for their retired heroes to launch glorious comebacks, almost as if to test that community’s own power—and without thinking of the risks involved.
One of the first cases occurred in 2004 with The Pixies, an affair that not even the band members expected would still be going in 2013—until they found themselves routinely selling more tickets than ever. 2007 and 2009 brought The Jesus And Mary Chain and Blur, respectively, two groups that seemed even more settled into retirement. Both are still touring as well.
And then in 2010, things got even hotter. First Pavement, then their Matador co-mascots Guided By Voices, then came Pulp, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, and the “not happening, except to drink beer” Dismemberment Plan (which has since embarked on a massive tour and upcoming album in addition to those beers). The following year brought back the “no desire to desecrate the grave” Stone Roses (which became the “only if you see me begging on the street” Stone Roses, then the “we just headlined Coachella” Stone Roses), and in 2012, the “only to get paid” Replacements.
Granted, not all of these cases are alike. Paul Westerberg, for instance, has always been forwardly confident that his Replacements would reconvene eventually, and they unfortunately happened upon a far nobler reason to than to “get paid”: a fundraiser EP for their guitarist Slim Dunlap, who recently suffered a stroke. (It should be noted that The Replacements reunion was minimal, and thus didn’t make the splash of bands actually willing to tour.) This isn’t to suggest that rock-band reunions haven’t been happening under the same absence-makes-the-heart-grow-fonder routine since forever. Stephen Malkmus even cited “the Zeppelin thing” as a template for Pavement’s big but short-lived re-entrance.
The difference, though? Led Zeppelin didn’t have to worry about facing audiences 10 times the size they were used to back when they actually made their seminal work. And if there were any from their era that did, they’d have seen it coming in the album sales. But the Pixies surely didn’t know there would be quite that much demand, and neither did the others. Travis Morrison was 10 years deep into a new, far more domesticated life when he realized his Dismemberment Plan had grown past niche cult-hero status and into venue-cramming, reissue-cranking, Late Night With Jimmy Fallon status by doing nothing for a decade. But if you consider Nitsuh Abebe’s widely discussed piece about the low sustainability of the modern indie-rock lifestyle for New York Magazine last September (for which Morrison was a key source), it’s tough not to wonder when this effect might lose its surprise element—and if artists could start playing it to their advantage.
Chances are, Mangum has a pretty good idea of what he’s in for by now; he’d only have to Google himself once. Or he could look towards his present-day equivalent of sorts in Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, another songwriter with a romanticized-reclusive reputation who made a deeply personal, hardly distributed album that would garner diehard fandom on its own merit due largely to the Internet. What’s more, Bon Iver may also go two-and-out: Last September, Vernon freaked out his fanbase when he ominously commented that Bon Iver was “winding it down” before even making it to three official LPs.
“I look at it like a faucet,” Vernon said. “I have to turn it off and walk away from it because so much of how that music comes together is subconscious or discovering. There’s so much attention on the band, it can be distracting at times. I really feel the need to walk away from it while I still care about it. And then if I come back to it—if at all—I'll feel better about it and be renewed…”
There’s certainly nothing illogical about Vernon’s metaphor, but you could almost hear the sarcastic “boo-hoo”s echoing from the Middle-Prominence Indie Rocker Club of yesteryear when he said it. That’s because it’s much easier to talk “walking away” when you have a sold-out Madison Square Garden in your back pocket waiting for you whenever you want it. Vernon is considering a path previously unavailable to artists like him: Where once he might have had to choose between calling it quits and risking creative exhaustion, now he might simply be able to press pause. Only now are we starting to see indie bands able to have it both ways. This is a good thing.
Whether or not you subscribe to the notion that the post-record-label-dominance era has brought on a harmful surplus of “buzz bands,” the fact is that these artists now have to compete harder for less of our attention. Our band radars are more like revolving doors now, spinning faster and becoming more crowded. If Vernon doesn’t feel he can deliver the goods again any time soon, what’s to stop him from checking out for a while, working on side projects with friends, and enjoying the years he’d otherwise spend under stress and forcing it—making that third, fourth, fifth phoned-in Bon Iver album that might get edged outside our revolving doors anyway?
For an autonomous example outside of music, look no further than the path of Arrested Development, which went from highly acclaimed but little-watched series to sad story of unrealized potential and back to success story 10 years later. Never before has the reunion—formerly connotative of fun, cheap nostalgia—occupied such a pedestal or commanded such hopes. It’s gone from a casual coda to a career destination, a badge of next-level success, almost an inevitability.
If Neutral Milk Hotel’s reunion does in fact lead to new material, it will give an unexpected twist to a long-shut case, and it might not be the only one. The band’s legacy is vulnerable to a number of amendments now. A group that was over and done years before Internet virality was an accepted force could suddenly become an original example of its most powerful capabilities—especially if this type of couple-LPs-and-a-reunion success story starts to become more common.