Does Neutral Milk Hotel Suck? A Debate Involving the Merits of "Elephant 6" as a Safe Word
Jeff Mangum plays the Majestic Theater on Sunday, January 20.
Gavin: You know how we always say Kiernan should publish our gchats? WELL GUESS WHAT! WE'RE IN THE MONEY!
Jaime: Wait, we're going to talk NMH?
Gavin: Yes. And how you think they suck, and then as a follow-on topic, how you are wrong.
Jaime: I think my big issue is the undue critical praise. It has morphed into this insane legendary album that people hold up as a holy sonic text. When actually it was received with sort of a whimper when it first came out.
Gavin: Lots of albums get bad reviews when they come out and then go on to be held up as classics. It doesn't mean they're not classics. The worst review of Aeroplane Over The Sea was from Rolling Stone. That's not even a bad review any more; that's almost a badge of honor. Arguably, people paid more attention to it when the singer went missing, ala Jeff Buckley.
Jaime: Buckley also got two movies made about him. According to super-trustworthy Wikipedia, Aeroplane has sold over 300,000 records and was the 6th best selling album of 2008, further cementing its place in the "indie kid starter kit" Americans get when they first go to college.
Gavin: The sixth best-selling album of 2008?! Come on, hit me. What were the top 5? And more importantly, what was number 7?
Jaime: Hold, on pulling up good ol' Rolling Stone...Excuse me, the sixth best selling vinyl of 2008.
Gavin: Sixth best-selling vinyl? I think that just means hipsters bought it, which is something I must concede has fueled NMH's success
Jaime: According to RS the fourth best selling album that year was B-52's record...which throws this whole conversation off course
Gavin: What I think I'm saying here is: Are you the hipster backlash now that it's (relatively) popular?
Jaime: I wouldn't call myself the hipster backlash personified. More an example of someone not willing to blindly accept NMH's music as holy writ. I find it boring, always have, and most likely always will. Then again I've never gotten high and listened to it. That might help.
Here's an example of something I wrote about Aeroplane that our previous editor never published. It's meant to be a satirical take down of people who newly discover the album:
You love this album, it's the absolute greatest thing you have ever heard and Jeff Mangum is a magical unicorn of wonder who writes songs that speak directly into your soul. My god it's all so deep, "Holland, 1945" is about ANNE FRANK! I mean can you even imagine anyone else dealing with subject matter that deep? No, you can't because Mags is the man, now let's go listen to "Two Headed Boy" and discuss how all the political parties are in league to screw us.
Gavin: I mean, I'm not saying it's the holy grail of lo-fi, as some people are prepared to think, I'm just saying it's an absolute classic, and what's more, one that's relatively timeless. And, look, if writing about Anne Frank was good enough for Anne Frank, it's good enough for at least one musician.
The album isn't boring, but I do admit it's not the easiest to listen to if you're not in the right frame of mind. Mangum's voice can be... grating. And the arrangements aren't exactly all that. I just feel like it's way more than the sum of its parts. It could have been as bad as some parts of On Avery Island were, but the whole thing holds together. It's like one of those rare albums where it's the whole package that's worth listening to,
Jaime: OK, so far we've decided that I think it's boring, you think it's a "complete" work of art; the long-built love of the album is akin to what happened with Pinkerton, and I should get high to it at least once. We also touched on the Buckley/Mangum comparison.
Gavin: What do you think makes it boring? The lack of originality? Musicianship? Lyrics?
Jaime: Actually, I respect Mangum as a writer and musician, I just don't find his music grabbing. It's dullness just sweeps over me and I get all yawny, which maybe makes my love Daniel Johnston a little hypocritical
Gavin: Not grabbing? I feel like a track like "Oh, Comely" holds the very front of your mind the whole time it's on. It's almost kind of painful. In a good way. Like bondage. You can almost hear the dark room.
Jaime: Elephant 6 would make a great safe word
Gavin: Who has time for two words?!
Jaime: We should really touch on the collective. The fact that a bunch of high school friends from Louisiana went on to form/shepherded so many well received bands is pretty amazing. But, let's get down to brass tacks, Of Montreal's Coquelicot Asleep in the Poppies: A Variety of Whimsical Verse is 10000 times better than Aeroplane and therefore is the best thing from Elephant 6.
Gavin: I am of the opinion that, in ten years, when people consider that album a mainstream classic, you'll be arguing against that too. Also, you smell bad.
Jaime: If any Of Montreal album becomes a mainstream loved classic it'll be Hissing Fauna. I'll be honest, it's mainly the cult of Mangum that bothers me. The mass freakouts that happen whenever he decides to come down from Mount Olympus and play for us common folks grates on me. I'm tired of hearing pretentious assholes talk about how amazing he is.
Gavin: He just went a little mental, that's all. He's getting over it now. Surely it's more a leaving the cave situation that a mountain one? And people are bound to be excited by the first tour in 15 years of a classic songwriter.
Jaime: I wouldn't call him a classic songwriter. I think that title needs to be saved for people who deserve it, like Prince or Bernie Taupin.
Gavin: Maybe it's more a comment on the "quality" of lo-fi indie albums that have come since.
Jaime: I feel we should call it "folk-fi".
Gavin: Is this just you being upset about someone choosing to play the saw?
Jaime: Not at all. If anything it's me being upset at all the bands who have come along singing nonsense in the name of NMH.
Gavin: It's the kind of album that makes you want to pick up a guitar and go for it, though. It's just then, if you have any self-awareness, you realize you're not actually anywhere near as good.
Jaime: It's also the kind of album that makes you want to drink red wine and have very bland sex with a girl that's majoring in library science.
Gavin: You would totally do that. You'd let her sort out your Dewey Decimal system. And you could use this classic 1998 album as the soundtrack to your vanilla intercourse.
Jaime: If this makes it to print, I want all the library science majors out there to holler at me.
Gavin: They don't holler, they're in a library.
Jaime: Then they can quietly whisper at me.
Gavin: I think, in conclusion, you don't understand why a relatively bland record from the 1990s is now some sort of high watermark for the music of that period. And I can see that. I just feel it has some innate quality, I'm not sure whether it's the songwriting, the singing, or the arrangements, or perhaps all three, that grab me every time. I had "Aeroplane Over The Sea" played as I walked back up the aisle after my wedding. I'm pretty much sold on the whole Mangum thing. I would also like to go on record as saying I liked them before it was cool. adjusts glasses. I'm not sure it deserves all its cult success and adoration, but I would definitely hail it as a great album. And one that hangs together as an album, not as just a bunch of disparate songs.
Jaime: I think I'm just still upset that it took the Pazz & Jop award away from In/Casino/Out.
Gavin: It beat In/Casino/Out?! Alright, I'm with you there.
Jaime: I think we end it with that.
Gavin: Thanks for listening, if you have to sue anyone, sue Jaime. He is less likely to get deported.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene with music features, additional online music listings and show picks. We'll also send special ticket offers and music promotions available only to our Music Newsletter subscribers.