Thursday, September 07, 2006

Neutral Milk Hotel

So I've been listening to Neutral Milk Hotel's In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. In the last few weeks I've had four people, including my pastor and my daughter's cute little Italian gay friend, tell me in totally unrelated conversations that this album is the Greatest Album Ever Made, that it has Changed Their Life, and other hyperventilating things that music fanatics tend to say several times per week. I understand. I pat them on their cute little hipster heads and encourage them to simmer down. Pitchfork, that bastion of arch musical cluelessness and snarkiness, rated it a 10.0 out of 10.0, to my knowledge the only "perfect" album they've ever reviewed.

I will admit that I did not listen to this album for years because of that Pitchfork review. I want to shove banana cream pies in the faces of Pitchfork reviewers. Out of general principle, I tend to disdain whatever they praise. It just makes it easier to maintain my sanity. Plus I'm wary of the mythologies that surround Insane Songwriters Who Record Their Magnum Opus Then Are Locked Away In A Padded Room stories, a la Syd Barrett. But look, when your pastor tells you that something is really great, you start thinking that maybe there is some higher spiritual principle at work, and that your future sanctification may be at stake. So I listened to the album. And I've kept listening to the album.

And you know what? It's pretty great. It's not The Greatest Album Ever Made, but it's really, really good. I'm feeling holier already. Plus, it's hugely entertaining in a crazed, unhinged way.

Jeff Mangum, the aforementioned insane singer/songwriter here, made this, his second album, in 1997. Then he disappeared. Now he's a demented hermit somewhere, perhaps in a cave, where his fingernails are six inches long. And people eat this stuff up. It's National Enquirer for Hipsters fodder. So I was prepared to be cynical. But the songs won me over, primarily because they're utterly unpredictable and yet still rooted in an easily understood pop framework; catchy, hook-filled guitar rock until, say, a Turkish marching band crashes the proceedings, as happens in several songs. And the lyrics are absolutely harrowing. There's a song about Anne Frank called "Holland, 1945" that will break your heart. There's a song about young, passionate love that degenerates into a remembrance of dear old mum plunging a fork into daddy's shoulder. And yes, Mangum does sound crazed, spitting out the lyrics, veering off key so frequently that it gets alarming, but sounding like he's so intensely locked in that he has no choice but to careen out of control. It's spooky -- and surpringly moving -- stuff.

So I'll ignore the fact that the guitar chords are right out of the Mel Bay Beginning Guitar book, and that anybody with two weeks practice can play these songs. And I'll ignore the fact that one of these songs is a nine-minute folk tune with two chords. In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is a fascinating, grim, and occasionally exhilarating ride.

8 comments:

e said...

I heard it the same week that Kid A came out.

While listening to ItAotS, I had the thought that I might be listening to the future.

Then I listened to Kid A. I loved OK Computer, but thought after that barnburner, Radiohead would do an R.E.M. and just hit the showers. After I heard Kid A, I burned my stereo. I don't think there will be a better Gen X album.

(I'm not claiming best album of all time or anything, just best album in the post-rock category since Can and before whatever Conor Oberst puts out after 40. That's an appropriately modest claim, isn't it?)

Fred Kohn said...

Snarkiness? What the hell is snarkiness? (I ask myself)

so, i do an internet search and got about half a dozen definitions which, tantalizingly and annoyingly, are contradictory.

I'm betting Andy means this:

"words that are intended to both impress and belittle someone at the same time"

Speaking of which, why would anybody listen to a band that calls itself "Neutral Milk Hotel"? Perhaps there is something really witty in that name, but it just seems snarky to me.

Andy Whitman said...

Q. Speaking of which, why would anybody listen to a band that calls itself "Neutral Milk Hotel"?

A. Because they make great music.

Jeff Cannell said...

Andy- Glad you are enjoying it. I've been collecting all the nmh live bootlegs i can find. His music really shines when it is just Jeff and acoustic guitar. BTW- apparently Jeff is doing well, but is more of a fan of music than "the music scene."

thanks for giving it a spin

Fred Kohn said...

Because they make great music

As the bard almost said: "What's in a name? That which we call 'neutral milk hotel' by any other name would sound as sweet."

Prairie Dawg said...

Glad to see you have a blog (I enjoy your Paste essays a lot) and glad you've come around to this record.

When I tell people about this record I have to force myself not to sputter, drool, and make grand pronouncements about Life and Art.

It may not be the best record of all time, but it may be the most perfect example of album-as-art that Jeff Mangum's generation has produced--a completely unified, original, entertaining and heart-rendingly moving piece of work.

You could try to name another, but I'd be compelled to argue against it.

By the way, it's a good thing--miraculous even--that all the songs could be learned within a week with Mel Bay songbook in hand. That's folk (rock) for ya.

By the way Pitchfork also gave a 10 to Wilco's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (one of the most overrated and overwrought albums of this generation of songwriters).

Prairie Dawg said...

Sorry-- I "by the way"'d ya twice.

Anonymous said...

http://web.archive.org/web/20041028151243/pitchforkmedia.com/record-reviews/n/neutral-milk-hotel/in-the-aeroplane-over-the-sea.shtml

Pitchfork didn't give it a 10 in their original review in 1998. They did, on the other hand, give a 10 to OK Computer, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (as Prarie Dawg mentioned), the Daydream Nation re-issue, and just about every Pavement album, none of which (in my opinion) hold a candle to this one (... OK...except maybe OK Computer).

Also, not only is "Holland, 1945" about Anne Frank, but the album makes many, many allusions to her frightening and sad story. "Oh Comely" is also entirely about her.