Thoughts on Neutral Milk Hotel’s Soft Silly Musical Magic


Thirty years ago, a 28-year-old man read the Diary of Anne Frank and was so moved by her stories of cat-like curiosity, innocence, and sexual awakening that he wrote a full concept album about his love for her and the life they could have lived out in his dreams. 

Jeff Mangum and his band Neutral Milk Hotel released In the Aeroplane Over the Sea in 1998.  They have released other music before and since, but none is able to touch the legacy that this album left.

Art inspired by other art generally yields an intellectually incestuous audience.  Oftentimes when there are literary references in music, it’s easy to imagine the indie elite sitting around whatever hip coffee shop they’re currently into, practically masturbating at the references to Kerouac’s secret hiding spots, Ginsberg’s dorm room, or Joyce’s rampant ramblings.  Literature and music walk hand in hand.  Regardless of how they are perceived, an audience that can recognize allusions to works of writing has the potential to identify even more deeply with that music.  In Neutral Milk Hotel’s performance at the Fox in April, their references didn’t feel contrived; they felt raw, racy, lovely and evocative of a sharp book written by a thirteen year old girl.

The honesty and innocence of their performance and music respectively was visceral.  A more dedicated, knowing audience has never existed.  The concert started with Jeff Mangum playing his guitar on stage, each member of the band slowly joining him.  His aura of performance wasn’t broken until he spoke softly into the microphone begging the audience to please refrain from taking pictures and videos.  “We want everyone to be present.”

Their performance was phenomenal and moving.  Their music is meant to be performed in full, the way it was, for a group of people watching with the utmost excitement and respect.

The only noise that came from the audience was the continual murmur of hundreds of people singing every set of lyrics in unison.  That and the occasional desperate offering: “We love you, Jeff,”  “Thank you so much for your music, Jeff.”   A more supportive audience has never existed.  Their adoration and worship of Neutral Milk Hotel is a direct product of their first album’s cult-like following.  In a way, this was an album of a generation.  It’s not a generation defined by age or origin, but one that   remembers the feeling of the notches in someone’s spine, how their muscles move, and who constantly and consistently thinks about how strange it is to be anything at all.  This album was revolutionary in the indie community; it was simple.  And yet, with the complexity of the lyrics and that distinct rasp of Mangum’s voice, it answered some question about the quintessence of life and what it meant to love someone.  Most music does, or at least tries, to answer questions about love.  What’s different about this album is that those expressions aren’t based just in romantic love, but in adolescent admiration, inspiration, young lovemaking.

No one just likes Neutral Milk Hotel.  People either love them or don’t know them at all.  Their album In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is hailed as the most popular indie album of all time.  Unlike Death Cab for Cutie and the Decemberists, Neutral Milk Hotel never reached mainstream music circulation, and as a result they have remained unknown in some circles while worshipped in others.

Their concert was spiritual.  When they first came on stage, the theatre seemed to sigh with remembrance that the members of the band were no longer young.  Beards and wrinkles aside, when they started playing, something magical happened.  The memories that those in the audience had had listening to their music somehow became palpable.  You could see the boy who lost his virginity to the song “Two-Headed Boy, Pt. 2,” thinking about fingertips.  You could hear the woman weeping about the state of the world listening to “Holland 1945”.  You could gently laugh and hum along to the buzz of remembrance that this old album holds.  I have never exchanged such meaningful eye contact with strangers.

As the performance continued, they played some of their more experimental music.  It is easy to forget that NMH is a rock band, albeit a rock band with a distinctly folksy, C-sharp, trumpet, chalkboard vibe.  The solo musical saw performance was by far one of the greatest moments of the show.  Screeching bow and blade prodded the audience to remember that unconventionality and experimentation can yield such interesting art.  Their use of instruments like the saw and accordion are responsible for the distinctive twang that their music has.  The individual performances of the band members were really just incredible.  Each was so robust in playing that he could have an individual concert.  Their skill as performers collectively make them what they are—a united front of a band that clearly believes in their music and enjoys playing it.

Neutral Milk Hotel is known for their dedication for production of music from true inspiration.  Their unique passion for music has pulled a uniquely warm and invested audience towards the band.  Their songs are intricate and young and deep.  And in the words of Jeff Mangum, their “soft silly music is meaningful, magical.”


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