This journey is a tightrope over a pit filled with schoolchildren and racehorses. There’s a balancing act, a fire breather, and a bearded lady. There aren’t many ways to describe Neutral Milk Hotel’s music, but a circus always springs to mind when “King of Carrot Flowers, Pt. 1” switches on. Jeff Mangum, lead singer and bandleader of Neutral, has always seemed out of step with the mainstream music industry. Just as well, though, since if he’d gone any further in he might not have been able to surprise the indie world in the way that he did.
Mangum, born in Louisiana at the dawn of the 1970’s, previously played in groups such as Synthetic Flying Machine and Olivia Tremor Control. In 1991, he joined up with buddies Will Cullen Hart and Bill Doss to form what would become Neutral Milk Hotel. This, however, would not be the definitive lineup the band would take, since recording sessions were often initiated wherever Mangum found inspiration and a microphone. His backup members often consisted of who was available at the time, and the work of Hart and Doss only consisted of a few efforts in the early 90’s. While he released the LP On Avery Island in 1996, his critically acclaimed work would not come until 1998, with the release of In the Aeroplane Over the Sea.
The album throws so many loops that it’s often hard to pinpoint exactly what genre you’re listening to. At first it can seem like folk, maybe even freak folk, and then “Holland, 1945” hits and you’re back in rock ’n’ roll land. Here’s a few samplings of the lyrical content of this kaleidoscope:
“The only girl I’ve ever loved
Was born with roses in her eyes
But then they buried her alive
One evening, 1945
With just her sister at her side
And only weeks before the guns
All came and rained on everyone
Now she’s a little boy in Spain
Playing pianos filled with flames
On empty rings around the sun
All sing to say my dream has come”
-“Holland, 1945”: In the Aeroplane Over the Sea
“Goldaline my dear
We will fold and freeze together
Far away from here
There is sun and spring and green forever
But now we move to feel
For ourselves inside some stranger’s stomach
Place your body here
Let your skin begin to blend itself with mine”
-“Oh Comely”: In the Aeroplane Over the Sea
Now you might be asking yourself, “What kind of inspiration would a man need to be writing these outlandish lyrics?” Let’s here from Jeff on this, “…it ended up being a reference to Anne Frank, too. A lot of the songs on this record are about Anne Frank.”
You heard that right. Anne Frank. After a while of wrestling with the idea, the careful listener begins to connect the dots between Mangum’s reading of The Diary of a Young Girl and the creation of Aeroplane.
Discussing the writing process, Jeff claimed:
“…typically there are little fragments of specific words and images swimming around in my mind, and then at some point, I’ll sit down with the guitar and everything will fall into place. It’s like your brain is a drain with a bunch of words and images dropping into it, swirling around. The drain is stopped up, but you can feel these things dropping into it. Then at some point, someone comes along and pulls the plug out of the drain…”
After a year of touring to support this album, Jeff went on an indefinite hiatus from performing and recording that has lasted ten years. While he has appeared sporadically on stage with a few acts headlined by his closest friends, no one has seen a resurgence of the pre-Aeroplane Mangum since. So, either Mr. Mangum is one of the most innovative and interesting artists of the past 20 years or he’s the most insane. Whichever is true, the legions of Indie fans who view this album as their own Sgt. Pepper will not let him go into obscurity without a fight.
Here’s a bit from Mangum himself. See what you think!
1. Marci Fierman, “Pitchfork: Interviews: Neutral Milk Hotel,” Pitchfork, http://pitchfork.com/features/interviews/5847-neutral-milk-hotel/.
1. Mike McGonigal, “orange twin,” Puncture, http://www.orangetwin.com/nmh_puncture3.html.