You Should’ve Listened To… Neutral Milk Hotel
Featured Image by Jack Noble
Do you like acoustic guitars? How about DIY indie-style horn sections? How about a guy playing a literal saw, like the tool, with a bow? This band is peak outsider, as some of my favorite cuts of theirs are leaked old cassette tapes on YouTube. Neutral Milk Hotel is the forerunner of a weird genre with no name, of beautiful lo-fi music featuring a charmingly imperfect vocalist and instrumentation, a trademark sound, and next-level lyrical mastery. If you like folk music, Rubber Soul by the Beatles, or rifling through bootleg CDs, Neutral Milk Hotel may be a band you should listen to.
Neutral Milk Hotel exists in a liminal space, a ‘between’ for the outsider music world – the underground was coming to the surface more than ever – anyone who’s perused 2000s indie knows its readily available on a level double or more that in the 1980s. The band evolved from the eclectic Elephant 6 Collective, a Louisiana and Colorado-based group of similar-minded musicians and childhood friends, of which The Apples in Stereo, Olivia Tremor Control, and of Montreal derived, along with Neutral Milk Hotel and many others. The band is largely the product of guitarist and singer Jeff Mangum, responsible for much of the songwriting and artistic vision. Mangum and various Elephant 6 artists recorded a small handful of cassettes featuring everything from unfounded song concepts, beautifully rendered full songs, and spoken word banter in their home studio, under the names Synthetic Flying Machine and simply ‘Milk’, finally landing on Neutral Milk Hotel for their first commercial EP, Everything Is, in 1994. 1996 brought a much more stable lineup to the band, featuring multi-instrumentalist Julian Koster on banjos, violins, and the singing saw in all recordings from then on. On Avery Island released that year, bringing a more consistent sound and a clearer aesthetic and lyrical story than Everything Is. With this first full-length release, it is widely accepted that Neutral Milk Hotel had found their sound. In 1998, with their second and final album, the band peaked in popularity and artistic vision alike, honing their sound and aesthetic in the context of a beautiful borderline concept album. In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is Neutral Milk Hotel’s magnum opus, their most popular release, and largely their defining project.
Aeroplane is, by and large, the best album to start on when getting into Neutral Milk Hotel. The album is a personal 10/10; I could not really fault any part of this record, and it’s the record I can most recommend to anybody and their uncle. The album tells an abstract story of war, love, and Jeff Mangum’s vivid dreams. ‘King of Carrot Flowers, pts. 1-3’ open the album, setting the tone with lyrics that have little meaning – lines like “And how you built a tower tumbling through the trees, in holy rattlesnakes that fell all around your feet” have little concrete definition to add to the narrative, but they’re ubiquitous and human – if Mangum’s writing is to be boiled down to one strength, it’s his ability to write songs that everyone can take personal meaning from. The lyrical breakdown where Mangum shows off his vocal stamina, yelling “I love you, Jesus Christ” for an impressively long refrain leading into a fuzzy heavier guitar section, gives additional context to the Neutral Milk Hotel sound – Koster plays a banjo, both normally and with a fiddle bow, and the sound is distorted and thick, much like the vast majority of the album. The album’s title track follows, an acoustic ballad to a dream Mangum once had, featuring the iconic line “Cant believe how strange it is to be anything at all”. The song is beautiful, and evokes memories inexistent – the music conjures emotions that are rarely reproduced and impossible to describe in me. From there come ‘Two Headed Boy’ and “The Fool”, a pairing of a narrative driven track about a two-headed boy living in a jar in a laboratory, and an eerie accompanying trumpet solo. Little can be said in words about ‘Two Headed Boy’; I implore that if you’ve read this far you listen to this song, and the album. ‘Holland 1945’ is an energetic song, both joyful and somber all at once, inspired by the diary of Anne Frank. Form this, the tone drastically changes to the softest track, ‘Communist Daughter’, where Mangum sings of semen and tranquility over barely-there guitar. This track flows right into ‘Oh Comely’, a passionate elegy to a hypothetical muse that Mangum often references as well as Anne Frank, alluding them to be one in the same. The track is 8 minutes long, and structured in such a way that It uses all 8 minutes (fun trivia: the whole song was recorded in one take by Magnum alone – at the end of the track you can here one of the band members yelling ‘Holy Shit!’) ‘Ghost’ reinforces Jeff’s personal inspirations taken from his imaginary muse over the most complex guitar pattern of the album. ‘[Untitled]’ is a bizarre experimental section featuring bagpipes, musical samples, and tons of drenched fuzzy instrumentation, attributing to a chaotic sound collage. Finally, out of this muddy chaos, comes ‘Two Headed Boy, Part 2’, where Mangum sings and plays acoustic guitar and harkens back to the style of the opening track and Two Headed Boy – an abstract, emphatic lyricism that draws in every reader to some lyric. The song is dark, then all the brighter, and emotionally challenging on the first few listens as different sounds and lyrics stand out every time. Mangum gives his best performance on the album in this track, crying out in the refrain at a high volume and above his natural range, but appears effortless. The album ends with a slowed, dramatic outro, and then the vacant sounds of the band leaving the studio. The album is magical in its delivery of several weird, conceptually muddled themes that somehow manage to come together perfectly. I can attest, the album is worth your time.
My personal favorite tracks from Neutral Milk Hotel’s discography include some basic picks, as well as a few obscure deeper cuts. I absolutely adore ‘Two Headed Boy, pt. 2’ in all of its dramatic, majestic glory. ‘Engine’ is a track the band would play in live shows often; its whimsical energy and Koster’s melodies on the singing saw make for a tranquil, pleasant song. ‘Ferris Wheel on Fire’, named the same as the unreleased album it is featured on, feels like a follow-up to ‘In the Aeroplane Over The Sea’ and a reflection on the album’s themes as a whole. The album is short, and available on YouTube; I do implore you to give it a chance. Lastly, ‘April 8th’ from On Avery Island features a haunting guitar melody and Mangum’s voice in rare form as he sings in his lower, more natural range.
Overall, Neutral Milk Hotel is a band for the romantic – their music is best enjoyed if you allow yourself to feel, to a certain degree, the overarching melancholy of Aeroplane, the psychedelic warm summery peace of Avery Island, and the introspective heart-throbbing balladry of ‘Two Headed Boy, Part 2’ and songs such as ‘Where You’ll Find Me Now’. The band is remarkable in their time, and still relevant to the human condition; their music was never the cleanest, making it timeless and perfectly aged in 2019.