Unlikely Heroes: The Legacy of Neutral Milk Hotel (Pts. 2 & 3)

Neutral Milk Hotel’s reputation was built on the strength of its magnum opus In the Aeroplane Over the Sea.  What is it about this album that it has inspired rabid devotees ready to proselytize about its brilliance at the drop of a hat?  In this next part, we will closely examine the particular genius of Aeroplane and why it is worthy of such deference.

It is difficult to enjoy In the Aeroplane Over the Sea on the first listen; to borrow a term from economics, appreciation has “a high barrier to entry”.  The bizarrely-stocked orchestra of cheap instruments, the ramshackle production combined with lo-fi recording touches, and Jeff Mangum’s raw and unique voice (some kind people may call it “untrained” to be charitable) all become qualities that you come to love, but it takes some time before this occurs.  It can be tough to overcome those initial impressions, and that’s how you end up with reactions like this Rolling Stone review (I don’t know if there’s a more “Rolling Stone” review than this, which when not engaged in strained allusions (Tusk and the MacArthur awards committee both get a mention) manages to do everything it can to show that the reviewer missed the point entirely (“burying the hard gem of songcraft under layers of bizarreness”; “most of the music is scant and drab, with flat-footed rhythms and chord changes strictly out of the beginner’s folk songbook”), all capped with a generic three-star rating).

The chord changes that the Rolling Stone reviewer derides are actually one of the quiet strengths of the album.  Most of the songs only rely on three or four basic chords, all of which should be familiar to the average listener’s ear.  The effect is that it grounds the songs into something that is immediately identifiable to the listener, and allows one to appreciate the more peculiar touches without allowing one’s attention to completely drift away.  The title track is a perfect example of this: it’s built on a common progression, G – E minor – C – D, or as I like to call it the “Last Kiss” progression (the I, vi (relative minor), IV, V chords for those inclined), over which Mangum sings a sweet and pleasant melody, and gradually more and more instruments are layered to provide distinctive accents, like the various horns and especially the eerie singing saw.  Mangum never changes the chords but in the bridge he makes a slight adjustment in their order, beginning each phrase with the E minor chord instead, which changes the tone of the entire section to something darker.  These little touches help bring out certain lines in the lyrics; a perfect example is how the singing saw helps embellish the line “how the notes all bend and reach above the trees”, providing an aural representation of the image depicted in the lyrics.

The brilliant “Holland, 1945” is another excellent example.  It’s even simpler than “Aeroplane” in that it uses only three chords: C, G, and D, the most basic chords in all contemporary music.  In fact, most of the time it switches only between C and G, with the D thrown in occasionally to provide the bridge between those two endpoints.  The simple structure also allows the song to retain the same amount of power when it’s just Mangum and his guitar.  That said, there are few things that equal the magnificence of this song when it’s the full band playing–the fuzz bass that gives the low end that buzzed edge, those horn lines which provide glimpses of triumph, and that excellent driving percussion that is always on the threat of falling apart but blisters through nonetheless.  Just listen to those crisp snare rolls and how they push the song into the next line, or those kick drum hits that accent the walking bassline in the coda.

It’s almost amazing that I’ve spent this many words analyzing the album with only passing references to the lyrics, because the story behind the words is often what is most familiar to those with even a passing knowledge of the band (“Oh, they’re the guys with the ‘Anne Frank’ album, right?”).  The discussion of the mythology of Aeroplane is certainly a factor that draws in many fans, and Mangum’s lyrics definitely invite further scrutiny.  Much of the album was indeed inspired by Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl, and she is referenced in many songs throughout the album (the bulk of her appearances is in the middle of the album, with “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea”, “Holland, 1945”, “Oh, Comely” and “Ghost” as significant examples).  However, it needs to be seen through the eyes of Mangum’s intense reaction to her ordeal and not just a recounting of her story.  Mangum uses several other characters on the album, as he weaves scenes of an impoverished modern family with fantastical characters and the ghost of Anne Frank, all as attempts to process all the terrible things that happen and how we are often powerless to stop them.  Individual lines alternate between sweet, childish simplicity  and bizarre horror, all processed through a particular straightforward innocence.

It is an extremely affecting and compelling work underscored by Mangum’s raw and impassioned vocal performance.  What initially comes off as harsh at worst and amateurish at best becomes warm and comforting after repeated listens.  You can feel each and every sentiment that Mangum goes through as he journeys through the emotional roller coaster of an album; the album veers from the affectionate “The Earth looks better from a star that’s right above from where you are” to the stark “I know they buried her body with others, her sister and mother and 500 families…I wish I could save her in some sort of time machine” to the redemptive “And when her spirit left her body, how it split the sun; I know that she will live forever, all goes on and on and on.”  It’s the reason why one of the most powerful experiences in my life was when I listened to this album and then visited the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam.

However, it’s not just the brilliance of the album itself that has inspired such fanatical devotion, but the mystery surrounding it.  While it’s easy to pick up on the general story behind the songs, the often cryptic lyrics  filled with fantastic and grotesque imagery have inspired wild theories and intense discussion.  And fans were left to argue their meaning among themselves, because Jeff Mangum rarely spoke about the album and conducted very few interviews once it was released.  Actually, I may be understating Mangum’s reluctance a little bit, as his silence led to stories of him becoming a recluse in the face of the overwhelming reaction to the album, so much so that Slate published an article in 2008 that dubbed Mangum “The Salinger of Indie Rock”.  The continued silence of Mangum over the years fed a cycle that increased the hysteria behind the album, and as nature abhors a vacuum, people rushed in to fill the gaps and speculate on the meaning of what seemed to be the last musical release of an eccentric genius.  With nothing to compare it to, the stature of the album was destined to grow, a pattern we’ve seen before (My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless is an excellent example of this phenomenon).

*******

Which was why it was such a surprise when Jeff Mangum eventually began his return to the spotlight a couple of years ago with a scattering of solo appearances, and why segments of the internet exploded in euphoria.  Finally, we would be able to hear from the man himself!

A triumphant return.

A triumphant return.

In the years leading up to his return, fans had to make do with scattered bootlegs and a tantalizing glimpse of the early form of Aeroplane-era songs with Live at Jittery Joe’s, a recording of Jeff performing solo before friends and an otherwise indifferent audience in a tiny club in Athens, Georgia between On Avery Island and Aeroplane.  It was remarkable to hear Mangum interact with the audience and give brief explanations and insights into his songs, and the casual nature of the set helped undercut some of the self-serious reverence that some fans had developed over the years.  This was music made by an actual human, not some ethereal muse or other mystical creature.

Jittery Joe’s also provided a clue as to how some of those early return shows would sound like, as Mangum seemed weary of returning the band as a whole.  Instead, he gradually introduced other band members in various performances and only for certain songs, generally performing by himself just with a couple of acoustic guitars.  I had the great fortune of seeing Mangum on these early tours twice, and it was a concert experience that few could possibly match.  It was amazing to watch a crowd that over years and years had connected on a deep emotional level with an artist that they had no idea they would ever have the chance to see, finally confronted with the opportunity to witness the source of their passion in person.  It was a mixture of joy and adoration, and took on the tone of an almost-religious revival.  I can say with some authority that the only person that could get a bunch of young Portland hipsters to yell “I love you, Jesus Christ” would be Jeff Mangum.

But still, there was something missing from these performances.  Jeff and his guitar may have been the backbone of each of these songs, but we had come to adore all the extra flourishes over the years–the thrashing drums, the buzzed bass, the kitchen-sink orchestra, et al.  So we were welcome to the new experience of seeing “Neutral Milk Hotel” as a whole perform these songs that we had come to know by heart.

Fellow Elephant 6 comrades The Minders and Elf Power were the opening bands, and they did a good job of keeping the energy of the crowd up.  We got an unexpected highlight when Elf Power covered the Olivia Tremor Control’s “Jumping Fences” in memory of Bill Doss, who had tragically died two years ago.  It was a reverent take of a brilliant song whose greatness was somewhat unappreciated by most of the crowd, who apparently had not delved into the oeuvre of the other band in the collective that often matched the brilliance of Neutral Milk Hotel.  One of the greatest concert experiences I ever had was seeing the Olivia Tremor Control perform a raucous set in a tiny Portland bar during Music Fest Northwest with a bunch of their friends from Elephant 6, and I wished that the other people in the crowd had been there so they could have been as excited as I was for this cover.

After Elf Power, the audience grew impatient as the moment that many had spent at least a decade to see was growing closer, but soon their fears were allayed as a lone bearded figure climbed up onto the stage.  Jeff opened the show with a stirring solo version of “Two-Headed Boy”, buoyed by a raucous crowd singing along.  And in a manner that perfectly matched the performance on the album, the rest of the band gradually made their way in a procession to the stage as they played the instrumental segue “The Fool”, and we could finally say that we had lived to see the return of Neutral Milk Hotel.  When the band launched into “Holland, 1945”, I could barely contain myself, and I shouted the lyrics along with the band as they played my favorite song of all-time.  It was an unbelievable moment, made better by the fact that you could see the joy of the band as well.

In those earlier Jeff solo shows, there was always a delicate tension between performer and audience, as the crowd was careful not to disturb a potentially emotionally fragile performer.  There was a strange dichotomy at work, as there was a connection between Jeff and the crowd because of the music, but also a distance between the two, as the crowd didn’t want to cross any imaginary line.  With this in the back of my head, I was therefore interested to see how Mangum would react with the rest of his band during the show.  Instead of being withdrawn and remote, Jeff seemed most joyous when he was playing along with his band.  He was still somewhat on an island off to the far right of the stage, and the nature of the songs meant that often it was him by himself facing the crowd, but the sense was not of “Jeff Mangum & Some Guys” but more of a cohesive unit called “Neutral Milk Hotel”.

The band had a varied set, shifting between songs from throughout their career.  There were of course several songs from Aeroplane, but they also hit highlights from their debut like “Gardenhead-Leave Me Alone” and “Song Against Sex”, as well as tossing in rarities like the early single “Everything Is” as well as “Ferris Wheel on Fire”.  The band saved the best for last, as they ended the show with an encore of the ending trio of songs from Aeroplane.  There’s “Ghost”, which manages to create this unbelievable tension as instruments pile on top of each other while the upbeat is hammered incessantly, while at the same time there is some relief because we have the potential relief of Anna’s ghost being free to escape.  Then there is the instrumental segue “Untitled”, which has the aura of a carnival celebration and where the band let loose, led by unusual instruments like the zanzithophone, which handles the main melody.  One of the indelible memories I will have of the show will be of Jeff jumping around with his acoustic guitar as this joyous circus performed along with him.  “Two-Headed Boy Pt. 2” then closes out this set, as we revisit characters from throughout the story as gradually everything fades away, and we’re left with Jeff alone with his guitar.  However, he doesn’t leave as he does at the end of the album; instead, Jeff has one more sing-along for the audience, and the crowd joins in on the fan-favorite “Engine” to close out the show.  It was the perfect ending to a memorable show, and we exited into the night to the sounds of “Pink Moon” filtering through the Crystal Ballroom sound system.  That’s about as good as a Sunday night gets.

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