Happy Returns

The cult of Neutral Milk Hotel should perhaps prepare for a second coming

The most influential indie-rock record of the past decade reverently declares I love you Jesus Christ, features the songs "Two-Headed Boy" (parts one and two) and "The King of Carrot Flowers" (part one, then parts two and three combined), uses semen as a lyrical motif, crushes heavily on Anne Frank, lists a zanzithophone player in its liner notes, and whips up an unholy racket like several punk rockers and a Bulgarian wedding band trapped in an elevator together, desperately screaming for help. Stranger things will never happen.

Fortunately, Neutral Milk Hotel's In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, a carefully guarded secret upon its release in 1998, has been happening ever since. The record's vibrant, chaotic Salvation Army Marching Band sound and surrealist wordplay have inspired current big shots from the Decemberists to the Arcade Fire to Clap Your Hands Say Yeah. Mysterious NMH mastermind Jeff Mangum -- who all but disappeared shortly after Aeroplane's release -- became a full-fledged reclusive genius deity, a beloved Salinger for the Pitchfork set. Pitchfork itself, meanwhile, recently deep-sixed the tepid Aeroplanereview the online rock-crit site had originally run and replaced it with a fawning, triumphant 10.0 coronation.

Eight years later, the record's influence and capacity to fascinate have swelled to gargantuan proportions. Now, Los Angeles-based writer and critic Kim Cooper -- a devout lover of bubblegum pop and so-called "unpopular culture" via her 'zine Scram -- has taken the first real crack at unraveling Aeroplane's mystique, penning a tome for Continuum Books' immensely popular 33 1/3 series.

The record's ongoing critical revisionism has helped, of course, but Cooper insists that word of mouth has slowly turned Neutral Milk Hotel from near-unknown to near-mythic. "I think it's just based on how many people love it," she explains. "People get very evangelical about this album. A record review can't do that. Who really cares if the record's got a 10.0, compared to sitting down with a friend who plays a song for you and it blows your mind?"

Cooper's book is a fairly straightforward rise-and-fall narrative, beginning with a gang of Louisiana college radio rats who migrate on a whim to Athens, Georgia, while slowly coalescing into the Elephant 6 collective, a loose-knit crew of psychedelic-pop artistes who've found success with bands like Olivia Tremor Control and Of Montreal, but undoubtedly peaked with Neutral Milk Hotel. In-depth interviews with friends and collaborators -- including pop aficionado Robert Schneider, who produced Aeroplane at Pet Sounds, his Denver studio -- fill it out, but the famously distant Mangum transcends and haunts it all. He doesn't talk to Cooper on the record -- "He didn't immediately say no, and ultimately he didn't say yes," she explains -- but you get just enough of a sense of the guy, from his affinity for rehearsing in the bathroom to his night terrors to his apparent obsession with Anne Frank's harrowing WWII artifact, The Diary of a Young Girl.

Aeroplane perfected a psychotic carnival sound (from expertly fuzzed-out barnburners like "Holland, 1945" to sweet, cryptic ballads like the title track), but Mangum's surrealist lyrics still dominate, filled with lovesick two-headed freaks floating in jars, semen-stained mountaintops, and flaming pianos, apartment buildings, and human heads. Cryptic Anne Frank references abound, but on the chilling "Oh Comely" -- a showcase for Mangum's mournfully strummed acoustic guitar and braying, famously polarizing voice -- he careens through verses of fantastically twisted imagery before settling on the shockingly direct:

And I know they buried her body with others/Her sister and mother and five hundred families/And will she remember me fifty years later/I wish I could save her in some sort of time machine.

The Jeff/Anne love affair is a strange and sometimes uncomfortable pairing. "Picture the Franks in their Dutch hidey-hole, 1944," Cooper writes. "Picture the Elephant 6 gang fifty years later, rock 'n' roll and road trips and DIY. Incongruous worlds, but the sets collide, and somehow fit perfectly together." Maybe not perfectly -- though plenty of critics hate E6, and Neutral Milk in particular, it's doubtful they've ever seriously considered genocide.

Over the phone, Cooper explains it a bit more convincingly. "I think it was a personal connection with [Anne] as a writer and as a person, this really lovely adolescent who was just kind of flowering and becoming an adult and an intellectual, and it was all just wiped away by forces so much more powerful than her," she explains. "Some people think that he was in love with her."

Does she think so? "I think he loved her the way that you love anyone whose story really touches you. You want the best for them, and you can't help them, and that's where you get I wish I could save her in some sort of time machine."

At first it's off-putting that Cooper largely avoids probing the meaning or backstory behind Aeroplane's beguiling lyrics -- she tacked on a track-by-track analysis at her editor's request -- but ultimately it makes sense to leave all that to your own inclination and imagination. Mangum's seclusion is also a fuzzy affair, but though his refusal to record, perform, or submit to interviews shortly after the album's release was partly because of private, personal issues, Cooper's book heavily implies that much of it was show biz, borne of Mangum's desire to go out with a bang, slowly work his devotees into a deifying lather, and then descend from the mountain years later with a spectacular follow-up. Urban legend insists he's gone completely bonkers, but the facts suggest he knows exactly what he's doing -- in her text, Cooper makes the point of noting that Mangum is alive, lucid, and sane.

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