Once in a blue moon, a songwriter comes along with a knack for writing wholly original material that seems to channel rock history without self-consciously referencing any of its sacred texts.
On his 1996 debut album, On Avery Island, and its just-released sequel, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, Neutral Milk Hotel main man Jeff Mangum simultaneously tunes in the Beach Boys' "Caroline No" and the Beatles' "Yellow Submarine," and rewrites both kid-pop masterworks in the process. He doesn't craft songs, but reaches into the air, harnesses some floating tune, and lets it gush effortlessly out of his graver-than-thou larynx. He's the cool valedictorian—the kid that never studies and still gets straight A's; and his songwriting process seems as simple as a sigh. Mangum tells strange tales of domestic unrest and spiritual questing. And, at his best, he's like the Eddie Vedder of the used-vinyl set.
Neutral Milk Hotel knows that the body can't subsist on fleeting melody alone. They carefully dress up their tunes in vintage threads, reaching outside their monsters-of-pop background to incorporate an arsenal of old-time instruments. Recorded when the whole of the band was basically Jeff Mangum, On Avery Island mixes indie-rock songwriting with prominent organs and the occasional horn arrangement—as scored by Mangum's producer/childhood chum Robert Schneider, of the band Apples In Stereo. On In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, Mangum is backed by a bizarre three-piece band, featuring drums, horns, and a mean accordion, and the album's fuller sound is aided by a slight upgrade in the band's typically rough-hewn recording quality. The bandleader has also honed those writing chops, and learned to bellow with greater gusto. He is incredibly convincing, even when backed by little more than his triumphant acoustic guitar.
All this makes Aeroplane seem like a whirlpool of contradictions. There are a number of hearty solo-acoustic bits (most notably the eight-minute-plus "Oh Comely"), but it's also more of a collaborative effort. The songs are predominately guided by Mangum's voice, but the sidemen often steal the show (see Scott Spillane's reed-section dirge "The Fool," or Julian Koster's eerie singing saw, which cuts through the title track). Recording on better equipment broadens Mangum's sonic options, but the outdated instruments sabotage the record's air of professionalism. The whole affair seems incredibly old-fashioned, with its pre-rock feel accentuated by a cover-art nod to Magritte, song characters born in 1929 and buried in 1945, and a prominently placed flugelhorn. Yet it is also an unmistakable product of our time, chock full of grinding electric-guitar static, punk-rock home recording, and '90s psychedelia.
The band lays out its full bag of tricks at the top of the set. Openers "The King of Carrot Flowers Part One"and "King of Carrot Flowers Pts. Two and Three" switch gears from folk rock to brassy bluster to a clamorous full-band train wreck. Beginning like a somber children's song as written by Flannery O'Connor, Mangum's composition recasts childhood as a surreal family circus: "Mom would stick a fork right into Daddy's shoulder/And Dad would throw the garbage all across the floor." An accordion drone kicks in and the song assumes an almost hymn-like timbre, which balloons as Mangum hollers, sans irony, "I love you Jesus Kir-iiiiiiist! Jeeesus Christ, I love you, yes I do!" The ode is downright unsettling, particularly once a wall of noise wells behind it and mutant drums rampage through like a bull on the streets of Pamplona.
It's incredibly exciting. For fans, the number will be thick with reference to Mangum's Southern upbringing in backwater Ruston, Louisiana. Yet the singer distances himself from this gospel-tinged babble. In lieu of his lyrics, his liner notes elliptically claim: "I mean what I sing although the theme of endless endless on this album is not based on any religion but more in the belief that all things seem to contain a white light within them that I see as eternal."
The rest of the record pursues that light without ever catching up to it. Endless endless, indeed. Mangum's a sucker for high-minded contemplation, but epiphanies come in small doses. On "Holland 1945" the band thrashes against the din of a cacophonous trombone, as Mangum turns from the story of Anne Frank to a meditation on reincarnation. In what might be the record's most cathartic moment, "Ghost," Mangum sings about how "all goes on and on and on"; then the band slips into a transcendental instrumental that evokes images of deranged children playing with toy instruments. The title track ponders death, concluding simply with "Now we are young let us lay in the sun and count every beautiful thing we can see."
And this is exactly what Mangum does; he's more intent on offering his audience beautiful things than explaining them. It gives the cynic in the faded Pavement tee the same sense of freedom he used to get from Pearl Jam. Yet, this mangy gang of surrealists avoids I-me-whine histrionics. In fact, Mangum throws himself at us with open arms. "I will shout until they know what I mean," he shouts in "Carrot Flowers."
Who knows, maybe someday we will.