Neutral Milk Hotel

By Caterina Fake
Published April 20, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

As I walk down the street on my way to work, I look at the people around me and wonder what their worlds are like. Most seem weighed down by the burdens of dailiness, much as I am -- things at home, things at work, never enough time, or money, or love. But occasionally, if I'm lucky, I catch stranger's face in reverie, bliss lighting her features, and get a glimpse of her inner life, whatever it is that she's invented to transcend the grind and torpor and gravity of bald reality.

Such glimpses are rare, but Jeff Mangum and his band, Neutral Milk Hotel, have built an album from the stuff of dailiness: carrots, needles, water, medicine, Christmas trees, flies, ovaries (not to mention acoustic guitar, trombone, flugelhorn, white noise, drums, short-wave radio and -- an instrument rarer than the Aeolian Harp -- the zanzithiphone).

Listening to less inspired bands grope for the heights of rapture reached by Mangum's visionary music is a lot like watching Olympic figure skaters flounder and fall: You are sad and embarrassed on their behalf. A teacher of mine used to call efforts like these "magnificent failures," and held them in higher esteem than those failures that result from risks untaken. But NMH's "In the Aeroplane Over the Sea" doesn't falter. It goes for great heights -- and gets there. Listening to this album is like watching someone fly.

I have to admit that it took me a while to finally get it, to succumb to the oblique gorgeousness of the music. But then I began to listen to the words on "The King of Carrot Flowers Pts. Two & Three": "I love you Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ I love you, yes I do." I stiffened at such heavy-handedness. Mangum anticipated this response, offering this cryptic explanation in the lyric sheet: "... a song for a old friend and a song for a new friend and now a song for Jesus Christ and since this seems to confuse people I'd like to simply say that 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 ..."

Wallace Stevens once said that the imagination is God. And if your world is filled with garbage, dead dogs, parents drinking, people dying and people wanting to die -- as it is in Mangum's songs -- you're going to need something to rise above it. Sex is one way, and there's plenty of spit, semen, tongues and fingers in these songs. But Mangum doesn't limit himself to the corporeal. His lyrics float above the trumpet's complaint, into the ether of childhood fantasy: "When you were young you were the king of carrot flowers and how you built a tower tumbling through the trees." With an inner life like Mangum's, even death is robbed of its darkness. There is no moment, seen properly, that does not contain God, joy, beauty or whatever your particular name for that ecstasy is. In the universe contained within this album, rattlesnakes are holy, trailer homes are cathedrals and ordinary people are bursting with fruit and love and white light.

Caterina Fake

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