What The Hell Is Jeff Mangum Trying To Tell Us?

Over the past several months, a series of cryptic drawings by Jeff Mangum has appeared for sale on the official Neutral Milk Hotel website. The series, titled The Book Cipher Sings, appears to be full of clues and codes alluding to new music that could be on the way. Fans immediately noticed that several of the drawings say “Double LP” or “Double AWOL Bombe?” (which, when read aloud, sounds like a lot like “Double Album”).

In terms of new music, Mangum and Neutral Milk Hotel have certainly been “AWOL” (a military acronym for Away Without Leave) and the mention of the word “Bombe” could be a reference to the code-breaking machines used by British cryptologists to decipher the German Enigma codes during World War II.

But whether these clues are indicating new music from Neutral Milk Hotel remains to be seen. The band has not released an album since 1998’s critically acclaimed In The Aeroplane Over The Sea and when asked on tour, Mangum said multiple times that there would be no new music from the band.

Here’s what we do know:

Many of the drawings contain the phrase “Stage Magicicada Cassini Huygens” and reference elephants.

The Magicicada is a type of “periodical cicada” that emerges from hibernation roughly every 13 and 17 years. It was roughly 17 years ago that Neutral Milk Hotel stopped touring the first time. According to Wikipedia, Brood VI is expected to re-emerge in the summer of 2017 in northern Georgia. (The Elephant 6 Collective originally hailed from Athens, Ga.)

Then there’s the possible connection to Cicada 3301, a series of complex cryptographic puzzles that may have been designed by the intelligence community to recruit codebreakers. The Washington Post called it one of the internet’s eeriest unsolved mysteries and described it as “a kind of internet scavenger hunt that relies on advanced code-breaking—and a working knowledge of things like obscure medieval literature and Mayan numerology—to unlock progressive clues. Who’s behind the puzzle is unclear, although many enthusiasts believe it’s a large, well-funded and shadowy organization trying to recruit into its membership. At this rate, we may never know.”

The Cassini-Huygens is an unmanned spacecraft launched by NASA in 1997 to explore Saturn. It’s expected to end its mission in September of this year. Many of the drawings include images of what appear to be ringed planets in front of the figures, numbered first, second and third, but the third planet is always depicted with two rings. Some have interpreted these as representing Neutral Milk Hotel’s albums, the first two being single LPs, and a clue for a forthcoming third double LP.

But there’s been much debate on Reddit and the Elephant 6 forums over whether or not these illustrations actually mean new music from Neutral Milk Hotel and Mangum, or something else.

They could be indicating a live album compilation from various tours (one drawing says “NY To SF,” while another says “1997 Chris Knox” referring to the member of the Tall Dwarfs that Mangum played with in 1998 and covered for a benefit record in 2009), or the drawings could be generating hype for the already-recorded but yet-to-be-released final album from another Elephant 6 band that Mangum was involved with, the Olivia Tremor Control. One drawing includes the phrase “Over The Countersign” scrawled on the back, leading some fans to interpret it as a clue for new music from that band since the first letters the words: O.T.C.

The lead singer of Olivia Tremor Control, Bill Doss, unfortunately passed away in 2012, but not before reportedly completing the recording of his vocal tracks for the final OTC album, The Same Place. The album was expected to be released in 2014, but it never materialized and there’s been no word on its status since a 2013 forum post by Bill’s widow.

Has Mangum taken the reigns and put finishing touches on the final Olivia Tremor Control record?

A leaked track list for The Same Place found online has only 11 songs that are rumored to be on that album but The Book Cipher drawings seem to indicate that whatever is coming from Mangum could include a total of 28 tracks, with seven per side. Each arm of the figures is segmented into seven pieces, and several of the drawings feature numbered lines extending from the hands of the figures up toward a series of seven concentric circles that look like tracks on a record.

Just recently, the mystery deepened when an image of the latest drawing appeared online. While similar to many of the others in the series, this one includes a series of three- and five-digit numbers written in the empty spaces. The three-digit numbers are all from one to 100, while the five-digit numbers are between 1,300 and 7,400. It looks very much like a code. Arrows point to the numbers 5-6-7 and 7-6-5 on the arms of the figure (which also bear resemblance to the rotors on a cryptographic machine).

Book Ciphers are codes created using a book as the cryptographic key. Numbers might correspond to pages or words to reveal a message. Are these new numbers on the latest drawing the “page numbers” of a book? So far, there have been no theories put forth as to what book the key could be.

The drawing also includes the words Angel and Echo—an Angel Echo is a term defined as “A radar echo from a region where there are no visible targets; may be caused by insects, birds, or refractive index variations in the atmosphere,” possibly a further reference to the Magicicada.

Whatever Mangum is trying to tell us, it seems to indicate new music on the horizon. I just hope we don’t have to solve the puzzle before we get it.

—Edward Fairchild