Ten Years #43: Neutral Milk Hotel

Decade of last.fm scrobbling countdown:
43. Neutral Milk Hotel (727 plays)
Top track (81 plays): Holland, 1945, from In the Aeroplane Over the Sea (1998)
Featured track: In the Aeroplane Over the Sea (full album)

When you listen to a really diverse and enormous catalog of music, terms like “favorite” can seem more cheap than they really are. We are bombarded, after all, with trite Rolling Stones style top 100 whatever lists for which half the entries are predetermined without any serious consideration whatsoever and the remainder are entirely arbitrary. I like to think that this Top 50 series contains sufficient factual restraints to avoid these shortcomings–that the inclusions are genuine in a manner that avoids momentary whims and degeneration to name recognition. (You won’t find any Led Zeppelin, Beatles, or Pink Floyd in this house.) But I also like to think that that the dozens–maybe hundreds–of musical entities I have described as a “favorite” here on Shattered Lens have been sufficiently qualified to bear weight. I don’t typically speak of unequivocal favorites. I point out what I like best under a well-defined set of conditions.

So read this as it stands: In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is my favorite album. At some point in the late 1990s, Jeff Mangum became possessed by some superhuman muse long enough to compose 40 minutes of poetic euphoria.

I don’t know that any prose description could fully capture the depth of this album. It is a mesh of beautiful poetic metaphors that only slowly begin to reveal themselves over dozens of listens. It does follow a loose chronology that is sufficiently cryptic to allow for multiple but similar interpretations. The album begins with a reflection on an innocent childhood and the narrator’s first sexual experience (presumably with her–or possibly his–step-brother, the “King of Carrot Flowers”) in an environment of domestic tension that they were at the time oblivious to. The scene then fades into the past like a movie, the The King Of Carrot Flowers Pts. Two And Three presenting a bizarre first-hand account of the experience of being born–some sacred moment followed by an explosion of chaos as the narrator first boldly proclaims her existence in total disregard to the good and bad around it. (Garbage bins? Dead dogs?) The title track which follows seems to hark back to the scene of the opening song from the perspective of the innocent in awe of the mysteries of life, embracing her young lover and dreamily “laughing out loud” at “how strange it is to be anything at all.” Two-Headed Boy is the first track in which the lovers start to grow up. The childish “King of Carrot Flowers” has become a metaphorical misfit, one head clinging to youth and the other being forced into the hardships of adulthood. Their physical love is expressed in passionate desperation, aware that their innocence is fleeting: “In the dark we will take off our clothes, and they’ll be placing fingers through the notches in your spine and when all is breaking everything that you can keep inside.” The narrator ultimately assures him that their innocence is eternal, lying in wait for the moment that he can overcome his recognition of the hardships of life, and then she gets up and leaves: “Two-Headed Boy, there’s no reason to grieve. The world that you need is wrapped in gold silver sleeves left beneath Christmas trees in the snow. I will take you and leave you alone, watching spirals of white softly flow over your eyelids, and all you did will wait until the point when you let go.”

At this point, an instrumental interlude marks the passage of time into the middle third of the album. A blundering plod titled The Fool, it seems to capture the cast’s development into typical adults, overcome by petty concerns and squabbles. This new stage is not immediately spelled out, however. Instead, Mangum introduces the elusive ‘voices in his head’ characters in the plot, beginning with Anne Frank and her friend or lover. Holland, 1945 rocks out in a peculiarly up-beat fashion. It seems to be narrated by a holocaust survivor reflecting on the loss of Anne. Unlike the Two-Headed Boy, the narrator here is peculiarly optimistic and remains positive even while presenting such cutting lines as “it’s so sad to see the world agree that they’d rather see their faces filled with flies, all when I wanted to keep white roses in their eyes.” Prevented by tragedy from ever experiencing a traditional passage into mundane adulthood, the narrator remains at once innocent and fully aware of one of the 20th century’s greatest atrocities. The next track is beautiful but hard to place in context. We meet the “Communist Daughter”, a woman placed in another 20th century nightmare, and the imagery is completely inverted. The ocean is filled with seaweed and the white mountain peaks are not blanketed in snow but stained with semen, while the industrial wasteland around her is beautiful–the “cars careen from the clouds”, and “the bridges burst and twist about”. Oh Comely presumably returns to the original cast, and it hits rock bottom. Narrated, I think, by the adult successor of the Two-Headed Boy, it captures an intense bitterness towards some former lover–probably not the step-sister–and towards life in general. The narrator describes Comely as having been raised by a broken family in a trailer park and blundering into one bad relationship after another in search of elusive happiness, sleeping with men who make shallow promises in order to take advantage of her: “Oh Comely, all of your friends are now letting you blow, bristling and ugly, bursting with fruits falling out from the holes of some bratty bright and bubbly friend you could need to say comforting things in your ear. But oh Comely, there isn’t such one friend that you could find here standing next to me; he’s only my enemy. I’ll crush him with everything I own. Say what you want to say and hang for your hollow ways.” The narrator goes on to reflect on his own relationship with Comely and those moments when their love felt sincere, and then the song gives way from bitterness to lament. Voices of the past speak out in the narrator’s head: Anne’s lover describes her miserable death and regrets being unable to save her, while another voice calls to his dear Goldaline, claiming to be trapped “inside some stranger’s stomach” and promising to return her to a place where “there is sun and spring and green forever”.

The album then moves on to what I would consider its third and final movement–three tracks of inspiring beauty that describe the narrator–possibly the adult King of Carrot Flowers/Two-Headed Boy–reaching that “point where you let go” described in Two-Headed Boy and abandoning his bitterness to embrace life again. Ghost is something of an awakening. The narrator realizes that the ghost of Anne lives within him with her youthful spirit intact, and with it a sort of universal, eternal innocence shared among all of us though often forgotten with age. Suddenly the optimism of Holland, 1945 makes sense. “One day a New York city baby, a girl, fell from the sky from the top of a burning apartment building fourteen stories high. When her spirit left her body, how it split the sun. I know that she will live forever. All goes on and on and on. She goes, and now she knows she’ll never be afraid to watch the morning paper blow into a hole where no one can escape.” Her spirit will never fall into that hole of adult drudgery–and the narrator can at last climb back out of it. The next track is an instrumental celebration of this. The closing track, Two-Headed Boy Pt. 2, is by far my favorite on the album. The narrator finally grasps what is important in life. He makes amends with the people who were once close to him–his misguided father, a wayward brother, perhaps a former sister-in-law–acknowledges the breaking point where the innocence of their relationships was lost, and encourages the Two-Headed Boy to appreciate the simple things in life while they last and not be bitter at their parting:

Daddy please hear this song that I sing. In your heart there’s a spark that just screams for a lover to bring a child to your chest that could lay as you sleep and love all you have left, like your boy used to be, long ago, wrapped in sheets warm and wet.

Blister please, with those wings in your spine, love to be with a brother of mine. How he’d love to find your tongue in his teeth, in a struggle to find secret songs that you keep wrapped in boxes so tight, sounding only at night as you sleep.

In my dreams you’re alive and you’re crying, as your mouth moves in mine, soft and sweet. Rings of flowers ’round your eyes, and I’ll love you for the rest of your life.

Brother see, we are one in the same. And you left with your head filled with flames, and you watched as your brains fell out through you teeth. Push the pieces in place. Make your smile sweet to see. Don’t you take this away. I’m still wanting my face on your cheek.

And when we break we’ll wait for our miracle.
God is a place where some holy spectacle lies.
When we break, we’ll wait for our miracle.
God is a place you will wait for the rest of your life.

Two-Headed Boy, she is all you could need. She will feed you tomatoes and radio wires, and retire to sheets safe and clean. But don’t hate her when she gets up to leave.

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