Neutral Milk Hotel’s seminal album In the Aeroplane Over The Sea was released in 1998, but I didn’t come to it until the summer of 2004. Similar to most music you discover in your late teens, it was given to me on a mix cd amongst songs by Arcade Fire, The Shins and Elliott Smith. Soon after, I bought the album at Rocking Horse Records at a time when buying cd’s was still a weekly ritual. I savoured the album art and played it through my shitty ageing cd player that had a crackle in the left speaker. It didn’t even matter. It might have even made it better. “For now we are young, Let us lay in the sun, And count every beautiful thing we can see.” Time seemed irrelevant. Every moment was complete and whatever came next was always a surprise.
Like any great album it didn’t just make up the soundtrack to great moments in my life; it made up the soundtrack to the moments between the moments. There is so much music that I have shared with special people, but this collection of songs has always felt entirely my own. For those contemplative flashes where my heart was so full it could burst there was the title track, for every time I wanted to cry myself into a stupor there was Two Headed Boy. For love and for hate, grief and elation it was always there.
The band hailed from Ruston, Louisiana and was made up of Jeff Magnum, Scott Spillane, Jeremy Barnes and Julian Koster. Frontman Jeff Mangum bought to his music an aching that could penetrate right to your core. He had a disregard for restraint and forced as many words as he could possibly manage without breath into a melody. There is a visceral quality that demands that you participate with more than just your ears. You are drawn into a world where emotions are too big to just feel and manifest themselves physically with forks being driven into shoulders, and fingers wedged into the notches of spines. Sexuality is fleshy and carnal with sheets warm and wet, the making of foetuses with flesh licking ladies, and the smells and stains of semen in gardens and on mountaintops. It is credit to it’s influence that despite all it’s baroque and bizarre themes it was such a resounding success and still sits high on the lists of even the most jaded critics. Pitchfork upped its original rating of 8.7 to a 10 when it revisited it’s review in 2005.
In The Aeroplane… is deeply introspective at one moment then launches into the murky depths of history at the next. As a rule, words that have no place making any sense combine in surrealist story telling and time bends, and melds without warning. When the album was released Mangum admitted it was heavily influenced by Anne Frank’s The Diary of A Young Girl, but it isn’t a concept album in the traditional sense. In a rare 1997 interview (he has only done this, one and another in 2002), he talked about discovering the book and spending three days crying because he was so involved in her life. “And then at the end, she gets disposed of like a piece of trash,” he says, “And that was something that completely blew my mind. The references to her on the record– like “Ghost” refers to her being born. And I would go to bed every night and have dreams about having a time machine and somehow I’d have the ability to move through time and space freely, and save Anne Frank. Do you think that’s embarrassing?”
There is a child like wonder in his approach that takes all the sadness and tragedy of the story and draws it into a collective unconscious of ideas, amorphous and swirling. The disparity of the themes are matched by the instrumentation with eastern European folk melodies mashed against euphoniums, screeching saws and pipes. The final hummed notes of Two Headed Boy give way to the horned intro of Fool in a confounding cacophony. It is pensive and often dark, but still joyous with its rhythmic percussion. The whole experience is like walking into the soundtrack to a dream. And given Mangum’s rich inner world that comes as no surprise. Reading his interviews is like watching a butterfly trapped in a mason jar, frantically batting it’s wings trying to find an opening to the outside world. Except, for Mangum the outside world is in.
After touring the album in 1998 Mangum mostly fell off the musical radar releasing only a collection of Bulgarian folk tunes. In the 2002 interview he appears to be struggling to make any sense of the world, his place in it, and what he could possibly contribute with another musical offering. He talks about spending hours creating intricate montages and orchestrating elaborate dream experiences through active imagination and ventures into eastern philosophy. He laments about not being able to heal humanity with his music, and instead trying to do this through spiritual pursuits. Another album is nowhere on the horizon and any hope of a follow up would seem optimistic at best.
It came as a surprise then in 2013 when the band announced an international stint of shows after a fourteen year absence. Months later I apprehensively made my way into Brisbane’s Tivoli with a motley collection of peers that had all waited a long time for this moment. Could it possibly live up to all the hype? The room felt heavy with feelings; the ones that each person had carried with them and sewn to these songs like an elaborate patchwork, draped over them like a proud and decorative coat. There is no other place where feelings are cooler than at a NMH show. It is not only acceptable to sing the words with your eyes closed, your head tossed back, and a couple of stray tears on your cheek, it is very much encouraged. When you open your eyes your gaze will be met by a fellow audience member with a look that simply says, “I know, right?”
As the band performed the title track of the album I felt like I was watching a circle close. All of the aeroplanes I have sat on while listening to the song came to mind. At times I was leaving something behind, at times I was coming back, at times I was setting out on a new adventure and at times I was wishing I could just stay there suspended in the air. Every time I was reminded of just “how strange it is to be anything at all,” a line that resonates with its matter of fact wisdom. The notes bended and reached from the stage and I was taken to all the years and places and people that this album has come to represent and the word nostalgia could not even come close to describing the elixir that coursed through my blood.
When the final chorus of Two Headed Boy Pt II faded, there was a twinge of sadness because at that moment I knew that this was the apex of my experience with these songs and this fragile artist. A decade older than I was when I pressed play on that mix cd, I didn’t need that raw energy to make sense of my inner experience anymore. Looking around at all those ageing faces, maybe none of us did. As we walked out we shed those coats and left them in an imaginary pile, a weight lifted from our shoulders.
Reflecting on the show I imagine Mangum in the empty venue, sifting through the pile, looking for those answers that he could never quite grasp like a vagabond at a flea market. He is small there with his motley beard, trying on all the coats for size, taking on a little bit of human experience each time. Every little fragment flashes through his mind like a super 8 film and he hums a melody as he tries to piece it all together; but there are just too many images and he is sagging under the weight of all the material. Instead he closes his eyes, and just enjoys the show.