Fans have painted an idealized picture of the group.
An element of mystery helps sustain Neutral Milk Hotel's popularity.
Soon after the 1998 release of their sophomore album, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, mastermind Jeff Mangum pulled the plug and all but vanished.
Admirers were left with recordings to fawn over, an otherworldly mix of hard-strummed guitar stories and fuzzy pop blasts that Mangum punctuated with his beguiling caterwaul and surreal imagery. They soon started painting an idealized picture of the band in their minds. Now Neutral Milk Hotel have reformed, and they'll play a sold-out show at the Orpheum on Feb. 8. Those in attendance will be forced to pit the imagined against the real. It's a scary prospect, because what if the band sucks?
The mind goes through similar struggles all the time, according to C. Shawn Green, a psychology professor at UW-Madison who calls the brain a "prediction machine.
"The brain is constantly generating expectations and then comparing those expectations to actual observations, he says. "If there turns out to be a difference between the expectations and the observations, the brain then shifts future expectations in an attempt to bring them more in line with future observations.
Fair enough, but sullying a pristine image cultivated over time can still be a bummer.
UW alum Bob Marshall expected to see tons of energy when At the Drive-In played a reunion show at Lollapalooza. But guitarist Omar Rodríguez-López was uncharacteristically lethargic.
"It definitely ruined my view of the band.... They just weren't the same guys that they were at their peak, Marshall says.
Local DJ Evan Woodward experienced something similar when watching a reunited Television in 2002.
"Richard Lloyd seemed to be slowly beaming in from another planet, and never really arrived, he says.
But local musician John Praw Kruse says that when he saw the elusive Godspeed You! Black Emperor, the experience matched the image the band's recordings conjured.
If accounts of the tour so far are any indication, Neutral Milk Hotel's Madison visit will be magical. And whether the show is good, bad or meh, reality will alter the fantasy, forcing dreamers to imagine something new.