On June 28, Pitchforkmedia published a news story about a mysterious posting on the Elephant 6 message board, attributed to Jeff Mangum, under the overly-sensational headline "Jeff Mangum Returns!" Pitchfork printed the entire posting, which certainly did seem to match what little is known of Mangum's current activities and interests.
The post described, among other things, the writer's recent recording activities, desire to tour again ("getting to gigs late with cars coughing and trombones smacking on doors…it can never be the same but i need to get as close as i can to that again"), and an upcoming return to the world of music ("everthing is happening soon, this is the year").
Everywhere in indiedom, there was much rejoicing and celebration. Jeff Mangum, pigeon-holed as either a mad genius or ultimate recluse, the driving force behind one the 1990's most revered albums, had been bitten by the bug and was ready to start scratching.
Except that it wasn't true. Within hours, Pitchfork had explained the post was, in fact, a very clever hoax, with Robert Schneider confirming that he had spoken to Mangum, who denied being the author: "i am sorry to inform you that this is not my post." And very quietly, Pitchfork's headline was suddenly changed from "Jeff Mangum Returns!" to "Jeff Mangum Returns?"
It took some balls from Pitchfork to even leave it as a question. A more suitable headline would have been "Jeff Mangum Still Wants to be Left Alone: We F'd Up." Now, I realize Pitchfork's primary objective is to get people to its site (Pitchfork's days as a small, niche indie-based website are long gone) and I have no problem with that.
For all its faults, including sometimes-incomprehensible music reviews, Pitchfork is still the best indie music-related site on the Web. Its upcoming Intonation festival boasts, by far, the coolest variety of indie acts this side of the ocean. And, perhaps most important of all, Pitchfork exposes both musical junkies like myself and casual observers (read: suburban kids with parents' money) to music that would otherwise receive very little notice.
I just wish Pitchfork could have avoided the sensationalism that occurs on a daily basis on CNN or the other mainstream news networks. Like many others who have experienced all the emotions that Aeroplane can draw out, I'm sure Pitchfork's intentions were good. Aeroplane is an indefinable album, at once, one of the most tragic and beautiful musical documents ever recorded.
It's understandable the folks at Pitchfork, acting as fans first and journalists second, wanted the news story to be true. Still, Pitchfork should have made sure everything was legit before posting "Jeff Mangum Returns!"
Jeff Mangum may never record another musical note or stretch his voice to that point where you expect it to break, which is fine with me. We all have Aeroplane, Avery Island, and, thanks to the generosity of collectors, a handful of truly amazing live Neutral Milk Hotel gigs. Then again, he may one day record something that rivals the most beautiful and heartbreaking moments of Aeroplane, which is also fine with me.
Until that time comes, he deserves the privacy and freedom he probably desired when he left the musical life in the first place. His fans, for whom the music of Neutral Milk Hotel means so much, should now apparently approach news stories of Mangum's possible return with a healthy degree of skepticism.