From Iceland — Neutral Milk Hotel Made Me Who I Am

Neutral Milk Hotel Made Me Who I Am

Published August 18, 2014

In praise of the most beloved indie band of all time, on the occasion of their appearance at Harpa

Neutral Milk Hotel Made Me Who I Am
Photo by
Will Westbrook

In praise of the most beloved indie band of all time, on the occasion of their appearance at Harpa

You are born. Not until a couple years later do you start to become a person, in the most rudimentary sense. It’s still not for quite a few years that you start to become your own person. Or perhaps it starts off okay, but as soon as you begin examining the world beyond yourself and your family, society’s homogenizing forces take hold of you. You don’t stand a chance. Culture is monopolized.

When I was growing up in southern California in the ‘90s, the musical landscape, as I remember it, consisted almost entirely of pop punk, ska punk, and whatever else MTV and the local rock radio station were playing. It expressed a sort of one-dimensional yet schizophrenic sensibility—corporate studio glossiness wearing an awkward proto-bro mask of juvenile rebellion.

And then, there was light…

Probably everybody can remember that first band that yelled out to them, “Hey, there’s more out there,” lifting their tiny, pubescent bodies by their comically baggy cargo pants to show them a view out to wider horizons. For me, that band was Neutral Milk Hotel. The view was the indie underground. There was something authentically fresh going on in music that the major labels, despite their Radioheads, Nirvanas, and Sonic Youths, had nothing on. Probably it was the very thing that the corporate labels had sterilized out of the likes of Beck.

Jeff Mangum, founder of Neutral Milk Hotel, also co-founded the Elephant 6 Recording Company—a collective of musicians with a shared affinity for experimentation and ‘60s psychedelic pop. Other Elephant 6 bands included The Apples in Stereo, Olivia Tremor Control and, later, Of Montreal. In 1996, Neutral Milk Hotel released their first album, the fuzz-folk ‘On Avery Island.’ Through this point the band was mostly a studio project, with Mangum playing most of the instruments himself. The band he put together to perform the material would go on to record their 1998 masterpiece, ‘In The Aeroplane Over the Sea.’

What makes ‘Aeroplane…’ such a legendary album?

There are so many elements that come together to make this album the classic that it is. There’s the passion in Mangum’s utterly unique voice. There are the powerful poetic visions, juxtaposing grotesque sexual imagery against Holocaust violence. There’s the rawness of the lo-fi compositions, stripped-down yet masterfully arranged. There’s the eclectic instrumentation—ranging from a single acoustic guitar, to horns, singing saws, echo machines, bagpipes and all out walls of fuzz. There’s Mangum’s legendary obsession with Anne Frank. Perhaps sealing the deal is that just as the album started gaining the recognition it deserved, Mangum stopped playing shows, quietly dissolved the band, and stepped entirely out of the public spotlight. He gave us this beautiful gift, and then disappeared.

The opening strummed chord on “Two-Headed Boy” still fills me with the same excitement it did the first time I heard it almost a decade and a half ago. Each of the songs on ‘Aeroplane…’ has a classic quality to it, and they have aged well. Mangum often needs little more than three or four chords to get his musical ideas across. “The Fool” is a great example of the band’s instrumental arrangement skills, while “Holland, 1945” and “Ghost” are excellent, crushing, fuzz-folk rockers.

Mangum’s stream-of-thought approach to writing lyrics delivers some beautifully surreal results. They present an ambiguously sane point-of-view. He flip-flops between grotesquely dark and sincerely affectionate. It’s hard to know which is Mangum and which is channelled. In “Song Against Sex,” he bids us, “don’t take those pills your boyfriend gave you, you’re too wonderful to die.” In “The King of Carrot Flowers Pts. Two & Three,” he sings, “I love you Jesus Christ,” though in the liner notes he clarifies that he attributes no religious meaning to it. Perhaps what makes it so beautiful is his ability to channel strong feelings from various points of view.

In ‘Aeroplane…’ Mangum draws us into a totally demented fantasy adventure, using the surreal as an escape from the totally horrific reality of the subject matter, fleeting from one fantastical situation to another, until a goosebump-inducing moment five minutes into “Oh Comely,” when the mood drops, and he snaps out of the delusion—his heroine is really dead and he only wishes he could have time-travelled to save her.

Mangum’s return

I long ago resigned myself to the fact that I’d discovered Neutral Milk Hotel only too late, and that I would never get to see them live. Then suddenly a couple years ago, out of nowhere, Mangum started appearing in public: performing a benefit concert, at an #Occupy protest, and at an ATP festival.

Now, on August 20th, the classic ‘Aeroplane Over The Sea’ line-up is performing here at Harpa.

Þórir performs music as Just Another Snakecult

Check out the event on our Listings site

Guess what! The first five folks who drop us a line to with the subject line “GIMME SOME NEUTRAL MILK” (all caps) will get a free ticket (and one for a friend) to the Neutral Milk Hotel show at Harpa on August 20. Sin Fang is opening and everything!

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