Tonight I’ll be seeing Neutral Milk Hotel perform at Brooklyn Academy of Music on their reunion tour, so why not choose the ever memorable “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea” from 1998? This is the title song from the album that is one of the stand-out examples of indie music of its time.
“Eclectic” is a way of saying that the sources of NMH’s music, written by Jeff Mangum and arranged for this recording by Robert Schneider, might be anything. Both men were part of the Elephant 6 Recording Company that spawned a number of groups in the late Nineties that all had a feel for the oddities of psychedelia—the musical tendency that promoted various forms of experimentation with odd instruments and unusual tunings and unorthodox use of familiar instruments, and tape effects and all the rest of it. The Elephant 6 recordings weren’t major label undertakings—they were like a latter day psychedelia arriving after the alt.label and indie music successes of the late Eighties and early Nineties. In a way, all the Elephant 6 music is “scene music,” music created by a network of musicians who support one another’s work and who are supported by local audiences—and “local” can include scenes at various places, such as Boulder, CO, and Athens, GA—who are into it. College radio, as ever, was the means for such music to circulate, though, for someone in my age group that “scene” was not something I was part of, except via my daughter who encountered it in her freshman year of college.
Ah yes, I recall how, around 1996 or 97, I told her it was her task to seek out and find new music. My collecting days had run their course, and she knew my collection, both what she liked and didn’t like. I was content to putter around getting old analog favorites in digital, as though new insights might come with a change of format. Meanwhile, there were twenty-somethings creating DIY masterpieces—not quite the kind that thrilled the twentysomethings of 30 years previous, but more like a “revisiting” that was also a sea change for a new era, one in which “rock” and “pop” were terms that no longer had much meaning.
When I finally got a copy of the album, early in this century, I had the impression it was one of those “once in a career” kind of albums; one would be hard-pressed to say exactly where it came from and exactly what kind of effect it had. Or even what effect it was after. One effect this song had on me was to give me shivers. Jeff Mangum’s voice occasionally flirts with a tonality like nails on a chalkboard—I heard an almost deranged sound in the vocals, strident and a bit obsessive, as if the singer, barely in control of his singing, isn’t fully in control of what he’s saying. It felt like therapy music. Or like listening to a field recording of a surrealist séance set to music.
That feeling was later somewhat dispelled by hearing Mangum play the songs live in 2011. Mangum seemed a sensible, somewhat self-effacing guy who wrote some killer songs, songs that haunt us as soon as we hear them, without us quite knowing why. And the songs are just as compelling without the abrasive horns and the wailing saws and other effects. Though, as I hope I’ll find when the group gets together and plays this stuff, there is “live in concert” value that will replace the infelicities of the recordings that have by now been engraved in all our brains.
“One day we will die / And our ashes will fly / From the aeroplane over the sea / But for now we are young / Let us lay in the sun / And count every beautiful thing we can see / Love to be / In the arms of everything I’m keeping here with me.” This, married to its sing-song melody, is almost a mantra to keep at bay all the negativity we meet with. Accepting death, giving us a lovely image of ashes on the air, then affirming youth and beauty and love, trying to keep it all “here with me.” Of course, as I was just remarking in reference to Chan Marshall, those kids who heard this in college or high school when it was new, well, they aren’t so young any more. And neither are the good folks of NMH. Maybe it’s time for something new.
“What a beautiful face / I have found in this place”—“What a curious life / We have found here tonight.” I say, what! There is maybe eternal youth in such exclamations. And pray that life remains beautiful and curious. Perhaps it does if you’re the sort of idiot savant that seems to be singing these songs—it sounds like its coming from a kid locked alone in his room, spinning out circus rhymes to amuse the friendly spirits that might be hovering around. There is a darker moment, in that bridge, right before those really unearthly sounds come in: “And now we keep where we don’t know / All secrets sleep in winter clothes / With one you loved so long ago / Now he don’t even know his name.” We might expect, “now you don’t even know his name”—the person once loved, now forgotten. But no, he don’t even know his name. He’s lost it, in other words. Sounds like your love didn’t do much for him.
But someday we may all meet up yonder: “When we meet on a cloud / I’ll be laughing out loud / I’ll be laughing at everyone I see / Can’t believe / How strange it is to be anything at all.” That last line always floored me, the way that a little kid saying something ridiculously precocious and apropos floors you. It’s the feeling of being over with it before you even have to undertake it. When I get to the clouds all this—all these things we are and try to be—will mean less than nothing. Laughable. How strange to be anything, even a singer for a band, even the writer of quirky songs. Not long after this album, Mangum stopped being that. Now he is it again; or at least he’ll be that tonight in Brooklyn.
Hearing him solo at the Shubert in New Haven was joyous, enthralling. Here’s hoping for more of the same.