Here is what Jeff Mangum is like: He is friendly. He stammers sometimes, as if struggling to find the right words to express his ideas. One imagines that he is not entirely comfortable coping with conventional situations, conversations, ideas. He talks about how he only recently began to read with regularity, because before "my head was always going so fast." He speaks for 10 minutes about Zen, then qualifies and disclaims everything he has said, because he "couldn't presume to speak for it; I don't know that much." He claims he'll have to stop writing songs eventually, because he "won't have accomplished anything"--even though he's already accomplished quite a bit. Awkward. Unaffected. Contradictory. Real.
Here is what his band, Neutral Milk Hotel, is like: All that, and also really good. Really good, hell--great. NMH's 1996 debut, On Avery Island, was rightfully lionized by a handful of onlookers as one of that year's finest offerings. At the record's core was, in the most reductive sense, folk music: one guy singing and playing an acoustic guitar. But Mangum layered his minstrelsy with so many disparate ornaments (lots of guitar fuzz, organs, bells, xylophones, trombones, drums) that he turned his songs into whimsical snippets of folk-pop bricolage--the perfect combination of melody, experiment, and an atypical imagination. And the brand-new follow-up, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, is even better, its songwriting more accomplished, its breadth more ambitious, its pleasures equally memorable. The record overwhelmingly confirms what On Avery Island had suggested: that this low-key unit has developed into one of rock's most singular, and singularly worthwhile, bands.
Neutral Milk Hotel is one of several groups that compose the Elephant Six recording collective, a loose confederation of experimental pop musicians and friends that play on each other's records. Pretty much any story about an E6 band has focused heavily on this angle, mostly because it's the sort of endearing tale one rarely hears in the context of modern rock music. The four central Elephant Six figures--Mangum, Apples in Stereo frontman Robert Schneider, and Olivia Tremor Control founders Will Cullen Hart and Bill Doss--grew up together in the tiny cultural backwater of Ruston, Louisiana. Mangum and Schneider met in the second grade; by high school, all four found a common bond in music. They listened to the Minutemen and Robert Wyatt. They traded homemade tapes of original music, trying to outdo each other's length and conceptual breadth. They played in bands together.
And one by one, they left. Schneider moved to Denver, where he still lives. Hart went to the Virgin Islands with his girlfriend, lived on a beach for a while, and ultimately ended up in Athens, Georgia, with Doss. Mangum wandered--Athens, Los Angeles, Seattle, Denver, Austin. But the four kept in touch, still trading tapes, still playing in each other's bands. And that's where it remains: Their bands often tour together, each guests on the others' records (Schneider produced and played on Aeroplane, for example), and each speaks of the others with unflinching affection. (The current Neutral Milk lineup includes another childhood friend, horn player Scott Spillane, alongside Mangum, drummer Jeremy Barnes, and multi-instrumentalist Julian Barnes.)
And here is why all of that matters: The Elephant Six story isn't instructive just for its feel-good ending; there's also a certain aura of innocence and charm here that's reflected in each band's approach. "I feel like the whole magical process is really amazing," Mangum says with an absolutely straight face. "It's just weird--you can take this magnetic tape, and you can put all these sounds on it."
Which isn't to say that they're cloying or simplistic; rather, they balance an almost total lack of irony and cynicism with an unmistakable intelligence and ambition. They're smart without being cute, catchy without being obvious, influenced without being derivative. Mangum is easily the darkest lyricist; where the Apples are sugary and childlike, the Olivia Tremor Control literate and surreal, Mangum offers stream-of-consciousness spiels in which something is almost always not quite right ("Then they buried her alive/One evening 1945," say, or even more explicitly, "I gave everything to a lie and a farce and a fake") as the storytelling and imagery unfolds. Even at his most troubled, though, Mangum remains loath to simply chronicle despair.
"People getting an emotional impact is more important than understanding what I'm singing," he says from his current home base of Athens. "I'll write a song and wonder if anyone will know what the fuck I'm talking about. But when people react, I know that they might not understand specifically, but they understand the emotions. There are some songs that I've hedged on releasing because I wasn't sure if it was clear enough that there was some beauty and hope between all the sad, crazy shit. I think that there's beauty in everything; I want that to come through. More than anything, I would like people to come away with a really good feeling. This record was kind of written during an emotional freak-out and me coming out of it. Hopefully, someone will get something out of that."
Though one hesitates to propagate romantic notions about the correlation between a frail psyche and worthwhile creativity, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea would appear to confirm such a connection; Mangum's "sad, crazy shit" and "emotional freak-out" (which he declines to elaborate on) has translated into an admirable collection of songs.
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.
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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.