The confusing underground labyrinth that is the indie-rock music scene can appear to be sometimes full of many tunnels and lanes, bury through one way and you’ll find yourself listening to the garage revival sound of The White Stripes or The Strokes but head in another direction and you’re faced with the popular alternative rock of REM and The Smiths. The numerous facets of indie rock-can be daunting to the new listener and the many different sub-genres only increase the perplexity of this particular type but one band rise above this as the kings of the underground maze, despite not actually being clear and visible figureheads at all, that band is Neutral Milk Hotel.
One of the most distinctive yet unnoticed bands of the late 90s, NMH were formed by lead man Jeff Mangum and three of his childhood friends in Athens, Georgia and released their first EP (Everything Is) in 1994. Their first full-length album, On Avery Island, a collection of good but standard folk-rock tracks, followed this. At this point, they were doing exactly the same as similar indie bands around them, touring the same venues while releasing EP’s and singles. It would have been hard to imagine this group, albeit a band who had recorded a great first album, ever reaching such heights of legend they occupy now with hipsters and avid music fans. Yet, sometimes it just takes one record; an album so magnificently weird and wonderful, so mystifyingly beautiful and bewildering that it transcends everything that went before and everything else around it. In The Aeroplane Over The Sea was this.
While Avery could reasonably be compared to other albums out there at the time, NMH’s second album came with no such reference points. It was a wonderfully eclectic mix of lo-fi, psych-folk and alternative rock; Mangum’s creation was one that is tremendously difficult to decipher. Indeed, it’s necessary to call it his creation, as to understand In The Aeroplane Over The Sea is to try and understand the man himself. It’s a personal journey, not in the usual biographical sense, but through the medium of dreams, thoughts and associations; to listen to it is to delve into Mangum’s warped psyche. He has admitted that some inspiration for the record came from his own dreams and night terrors he experienced and the dark surrealism of the lyrics adhere to this. The song Two Headed Boy features a mutant child trapped inside a jar of formaldehyde, and “semen stains the mountaintops” is just one of many sexual allusions in Communist Daughter. The references to the latter highlight his obsession with the body and its texture which runs through the album – this gives the effect of it being not only a listening experience but involving more than just the ears.
For a genre that can seem to the outsider to be mainly concerned with its cool credentials, Aeroplane most certainly is not. Shortly after the album’s release, Mangum told in an interview of the huge influence Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl had on it (as heard most explicitly in the song Holland 1945). He explained that he was completely overcome with sadness and grief when reading the book for the first time. Stating that your work is based partly on your overwhelming reaction to a young girl’s diary that is often used as a text in high school can’t be deemed a cool admission by any means, but it shows that Mangum and co. valued individuality and emotion over anything else. His honesty about the influences translated to his emotions conveyed in his music. And if lyrically the inspiration derived from the Holocaust, the fact that the musical instrumentation transcends time, swinging from horn arrangements to the banjo (with even a singing saw to add to the equation), only adds to the varied mysterious layers of the album, and indeed perhaps to the ‘uncoolness’.
The album was deservedly met with critical acclaim and popularity in indie circles (it appeared in many best of year album lists) but in a move befitting of the mystique and uncertainty of their music, Mangum called a hiatus for the band immediately afterwards. He was driven further underground was the growing fame and notoriety that their second record brought and he became something of a hermit for the best part of a decade, refusing interviews and appearances. Unlike similar groups in similar situations however, the band’s allure only increased, and the dormant band and their records gained even greater cult status. Their fans didn’t fade away but remained, waiting in the faint hope of the second coming. And so it duly arrived, and I found myself in the midst of it.
Almost one month ago, NMH played at the Barrowlands as part of their reunion tour. To be present was to witness the forceful impact their music has on their fans. The room that night was a bear-pit of fervent longing and amazement at actually seeing Mangum onstage collectively shared by all: there were the ageing rockers; there were the new hipsters, uniform in their plaid shirts, who idolized Mangum as the unseen God of indie-rock; and there were the groups of parents, whose teenage years were irrevocably changed by 4 men and their singing saw. But what all connected was their overriding passion for one band – NMH are a group that inhibit devotion once you finally discover them. This may read as a review of Neutral Milk Hotel’s work but it is not only that. Above all, it’s a plea: make sure you aren’t one of the people for whom NMH are the greatest band you’ve never listened to.