The Album List #20: Neutral Milk Hotel “In The Aeroplane Over the Sea”

I want them to come back now. Jeff? Your move.

One of the best things about the recent OWS protest in Zuccotti Park was that Jeff Mangum, NMH’s erstwhile leader, played music. In the twelve years since the band famously just stopped, Jeff has been a mercurial creature. Recent activity might indicate a future for the brilliant man to come back to. He curated ATP and has played some shows. I can’t tell you how much I want this to happen.

The Athens, Georgian based NMH were ten years ahead of the new folk rock boom that spawned Mumford and Sons. As much as I love Mumford, they aren’t as great as the rawer, more stripped back NMH, who would throw in musical saws and uilleann pipes in their melodies. NMH are simply one of those bands that could have been, but never were, and almost forgotten if it weren’t for the faithful.

The band’s reputation has increased over the years. Famous fans like Win Butler have turned scores of people on to them. This little album has topped 300,000 in sales in the past decade. But still- Mangum has remained elusive.

NMH came to me later- my middle daughter was a baby when I first heard “Communist Daughter”. A short dirge about sexual obsession colouring your environment (literally seeing it) and knowing that sex is the most immediate response of humans when trauma strikes. The desire to feel anything except fear and pain are overwhelming. In under two minutes, Jeff Mangum convinced me to listen to his record.

Dense instrumentation, Mangum’s emotional honesty, and Anne Frank’s diary all play a role in the complex and difficult album. It’s awkward and painful, uncomfortable sometimes. It details obsessively the pictures in Mangum’s head, sometimes in terrifying tableaux. It makes it a difficult album to defend from detractors. It doesn’t help that the decade long silence of the troubled heart of the band continues to be absent from most of music.

But there is an odd joy to this record as well. I hear it in the music itself, particularly the brightness of “Holland 1945”, one of my all-time favourite songs. While the lyrics reference the White Rose resistance movement, the bombings that decimated Germany in the last days of World War II, Franco’s Spain, and the constant smell of death due to war, disease, and suicide, the music is almost hypnotically upbeat. It’s speedy, ferocious race of guitars and horns and fuzz collapses at the end in a heap, burnt out by the need to go so quickly. I feel alive when I hear it. I want to run and scream, throw things, end my own self contained misery when I hear it.

Sometimes it’s best to not think to hard about the lyrics, as they are sometimes disturbingly dark. But I keep getting drawn into Mangum’s very poetic and messed up head. References to being confused by adult relationships as a child and the impact of negative examples making it harder to control your own expectations litter the album’s lyrics. Fortunately he counters it with inventive musicality.  The title track uses a musical saw so perfectly, over a shuffling acoustic guitar, it makes me smile despite the fact it essentially about Mangum’s Anne Frank obsession gone nuclear.

I can’t fault the man for being an obsessive. I think the album ultimately speaks to my own darker nature, my own obsessive side, that doesn’t let go even when I know I should. There is no logic in obsession. It’s all about the feelings. When I listen to it, I don’t see Anne Frank or Jeff Mangum, or any of what he is singing about. I hear the lyrics and they get pulled into my own obsessions, my own wants and desires. I can listen to the album over and over as I try to justify my mind’s though patterns. As a result, it’s one of the albums on this list I listen to the least. It’s a dangerous record.

But for those who are of a stronger personal identity and enamoured with intense folk charm and weird instruments, this album is a gem. It’s beautiful in spite of the darkness.  It deserves all the listeners it can get. With Jeff Mangum now peeking out from behind the fences, announcing recently a short tour in early 2012, maybe we’ll get lucky and get some more. I don’t want Mangum to continue to be the Salinger of music. I want him to come back to me and talk about what’s on his mind. I feel a kinship with the man.

Maybe it’s just one more of my obsessions.


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