By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
Musically, the record alternates between two basic moods: slow, relatively spare ballads ("Communist Daughter," "Oh Comely," the title track) and up-tempo pop ravers ("Holland, 1945," the amazing "Ghost"), with a few numbers that split the difference ("Two-Headed Boy," "The King of Carrot Flowers, Pts. One, Two, and Three"). There are two notable digressions: the jaunty keyboard track "10" and "The Fool," a wondrous marching-band instrumental thing that sounds like a requiem from The Godfather. "The Fool" is indicative of the album's range; though a list of its instruments--a compendium that includes the singing saw, bowed banjo, flYgelhorn, and zanzithophone, whatever the hell that is--might read like willful obscurantism, it all plays like common sense. The amazing thing isn't that the band has simply included something like "The Fool"; it's that the horn dirge is completely in keeping with the album's character. Somehow, it works.
Such experimental arrangements would mean little without good songs, of course, but Mangum is again up to task. As in the past, the primary melodies here are provided by his voice, with the varied instruments providing background texture and secondary color. The tunes are start-to-finish more consistent than those on Avery, where different songs sometimes play like minor variations on a single theme. With the exception of the two different parts of "Two-Headed Boy," the tracks on Aeroplane are nicely varied and well-written, parables of hope and sorrow that grip you with their unflinching catchiness and lyric whims. Mangum also seems to be more concerned with singing--there are moments (again "Two-Headed Boy") when he sings with such abandon that one is tempted to alert him to the dangers of a hernia. But mostly he's as gruff and tuneful as ever.
As for his lyrics, it's no small wonder that they even make sense, given the manner in which he writes them: He comes up with a melody. He starts singing, off the top of his head. Whatever he remembers, he uses. When he's sung the song enough times, he writes down the lyrics. It is a testament to Mangum's imaginativeness, then, that his oblique, vaguely tortured lyrics only rarely falter--even in the occasional moments of directness. The first, and most glaring, instance of the latter arrives on "King of Carrot Flowers, Part Two": "I love you, Jesus Christ/Jesus Christ I love you, yes I do." It's an uncharacteristically straightforward declaration from a guy whose most concrete previous allusion to religion was "And the first one tore a picture/Of a dead and hanging man" and whose general lyric philosophy seems to heavily emphasize suggestion over assertion.
"People wonder if I'm being ironic or if I'm some Christian freak," Mangum says. "The answer is neither. My upbringing was very religious, very insane kind of weird hippie Jesus stuff. I don't claim to know who or what Jesus was. I have just as much love for other religions, and I really don't think that much of what we see as Christianity has much to do with Christ. But even if I don't appreciate a lot of organized Christian religion, I can appreciate Christ for what he was. I don't mind spilling my guts about everything. I think when people found out we were sincere, it meant a lot to them. I just always felt like if I was going to sing about God, I had to be pretty straightforward about it."
If you think that all of this is beginning to sound like an exercise in metaphysics, don't. That one overt reference to spirituality is but a single thought among hundreds whose meaning is left open. One is equally likely to be troubled by something such as "All in your ovaries all of them milking/With green fleshy flowers while powerful pistons were/Sugary sweet machines smelling of semen," or "You watched as your brains fell out through your teeth." And ultimately, Mangum is right; what he's singing--tweaked and memorable as it may often be--isn't half as important as the emotion of the songs themselves. And with such a distinctive instrumental sensibility, such a grasp of melodic conception, and such an uncommon frontman, Neutral Milk Hotel is a sure bet in that regard. Its head is in the clouds, and its records are better for it.
"I think I just go through the same types of emotional things that everyone goes through," he says. "I'm just expressing what everyone else is feeling in my own way. There's a lot of places emotionally that we all pretty much meet up, and I sort of feel like I'm just articulating that--struggling with God, struggling with all the bad shit that happens every day, and at the same time, it's good to have a nice piece of cake, you know? It freaks me out sometimes, what I end up singing. I don't think I could write songs for my whole life. I can't freak out forever. I won't have accomplished anything.
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