If art’s highest calling is the evocation of emotion, then Neutral Milk Hotel has achieved indie rock nirvana. Anyone between the ages of, say, 25 and 40 can tell you where they were and who they were with when they heard the band’s 1998 masterpiece In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. And 17 years on, the record still packs a mystical punch, transcending structural specificity and genre explication to serve as a true underground bridge between ’90s alt-rock posturing and ’00s indie weirdness.
Maybe it’s the haunting narrative allegories that reference the tragic life of Anne Frank. Or the baroque flourishes of trumpet, Zanzithophone, accordion, bowed banjo, singing saw, Uilleann pipe, and euphonium that fill the spaces around frontman Jeff Mangum’s frantic acoustic guitar strums. Or the lo-fi, outsider quality inherent even in the band’s most polished work, which still drew a straight line to Mangum’s early Neutral Milk Hotel demos and 7-inches.
Growing up in rural Ruston, Louisiana, Mangum and his friends put that home-recorded ethos into practice in the late ’80s. When they moved to Athens, Georgia, in the early ’90s, they coalesced into the Elephant 6 Recording Company collective, which birthed long-running bands like Apples in Stereo, Olivia Tremor Control, of Montreal, and Elf Power. Mangum grew restless, though, and started wandering the continent, sleeping in friends’ closets, composing sound collages, collecting field recordings and working on the solo material that eventually became Neutral Milk Hotel.
Mangum beefed up the band’s sound on the debut full-length On Avery Island, released by Merge Records. It’s still hard to overestimate the sui generis nature of the work: cacophonous horn arrangements, distorted psych-folk, and intensely personal, often disturbing lyrics, delivered a full decade before those trends became de rigueur in indie rock.
It was 1998’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea that fully realized Neutral Milk Hotel’s surreal worldview. The addition of accomplished multi-instrumentalists Jeremy Barnes, Scott Spillane, and Julian Koster, who brought in Eastern European, free jazz, and baroque pop influences, gave Mangum the liberty to focus on the album’s bizarre lyrics, most of which he wrote after reading Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl and suffering from fever dreams about her death, along with her family’s, in the Holocaust.
Even after 17 years of close examination, some of those lyrics make little sense, though the first four words of the album — “When you were young” — set a heartbreaking tone maintained throughout. Certain lines are packed with such intimate detail they still devastate (and disturb): “Mom would stick a fork right into daddy’s shoulder.” “Semen stains the mountaintops.” “They’ll be placing fingers through the notches in your spine.” “How I would push my fingers through/Your mouth to make those muscles move.”
Neutral Milk Hotel toured Aeroplane for a solid year, then vanished. Mangum turned down a chance to open for R.E.M., hinting at mental instability brought on by the demands of the record’s success. For years, he was a relative recluse; Slate called him “the Salinger of indie rock,” the Wall Street Journal created “A Timeline of His Lost Years.” In 2001, Mangum released a field-recorded compilation of Bulgarian folk music; in 2002, he had a rambling interview on Pitchfork.com about Jungian active imagination, Eastern philosophy and jealousy. In 2005, he pplayed one song with Olivia Tremor Control. And in 2008, he played one NMH song with the Elephant 6 Holiday Surprise Tour.
Finally, in ’09 and ’10, Mangum did one-off appearances in New York, performing full sets of NMH music. In 2011, he kicked off a proper solo tour that eventually extended to 2012’s biggest festivals. And in October 2013, Neutral Milk Hotel announced a full reunion with Mangum, Spillane, Barnes and Koster, plus contributors Jeremy Thal, Astra Taylor and Hotelier Laura Carter. Due to heavy demand, the tour was extended through 2014, then through summer 2015. Last December, the band said that would serve as their “goodbye for the never-ending now.”
I’ve seen Neutral Milk Hotel 2.0 twice, and I can say that, unlike some recent rock reunion shows, this one doesn’t disappoint. The band plays no new material, but every old favorite is delivered with the same ramshackle urgency and harmonic devotion heard on records. Some critics have accused Jeff Mangum of “ruining” Neutral Milk Hotel by emerging from the shadows — tell that to the fans who gobbled up every ticket on a two-year itinerary within minutes, fans who sing along with every word and savor every instrumental interlude, often with tears streaming down their faces. Hipster haters will chortle, but that’s what waiting 15 years to experience the live ecstasy of a beloved album like In the Aeroplane Over the Sea will do.
As Mangum said in his Pitchfork.com interview, the important thing is the “intrinsic mystery and power” of music — “the way that the music makes me feel.”