Before I begin, it must be said: now that I’ve listened to this album over a dozen times in two weeks, I have no critiques to make of it. Jeff Mangum (the only permanent member of the band) doesn’t leave room for criticism. He accomplishes precisely what he sets out to do. The music is entirely and unabashedly himself, and damn is it good. You should listen to this.
I didn’t know a thing about Neutral Milk Hotel before doing this album review. I’d never heard of this Jeff Mangum fellow, or his unbiased dairy-lodging. To my surprise, this album clearly states that it was released in February of 1998. I’d always kind of assumed this album came out sometime in 2009, but that’s probably just my associating this album with Andrew because that’s the year we met, and consequently, the first time I heard the words “neutral,” “milk,” and “hotel” together in one breath. Or probably even one day, for that matter.
All I knew was that I was excited to finally listen to this album I’ve seen dozens and dozens of times with the nifty woodcut style artwork on the cover.
So strap on your pilot goggles, grab your diary, and fly on back across the pond to Holland, 1945.
Track 1. The King of Carrot Flowers Pt. One
Acoustic guitar, okay. Accordion. This hasn’t shattered any illusions of mine yet, but I can’t help but think how much more it sounds like “The best album of 2011” than it does a release fourteen years earlier.
Track 2. The King of Carrot Flowers Pts. Two & Three
“I love you, Jesus Christ”
Now the music kicks into gear. The guitar itself could be heard on a Nirvana album. I’m beginning to hear the date in this music. The instrumentation on this track is like a living, breathing, creature. It’s a finely tuned machine: the Bugatti of 90’s indie-rock. I can’t help but say his voice reminds me oddly of a mildly-masculine Joanna Newsom.
“I will shout until they know what I mean“
Track 3. In The Aeroplane Over the Sea
“I Can’t Believe how strange it is to be anything at all.”
The sing-song title-track in 6/8 is absolutely loaded with secondary instruments that will make your ears water. If that’s a thing. That is the most precise saw playing I’ve ever heard. The brass sections captivate you in between the lyrical verses in a way that strongly foreshadows the indie-folk music being released today. This music is quickly filling a hole in my mind of sounds I would like to hear. I get a Billy Bragg meets Syd Barrett’s solo stuff vibe from this track, and I really really dig it. I’m already sold on the album.
Track 4. Two-Headed Boy
The album is beginning to take a turn for the anti-folk/acoustic punk minus the politics, and more personal. Did I just hear clipping on the vocal track? There was something there, and I liked it. This is a song about childhood intimacy, nostalgia, growing up, and discovery. The instrumentation comes in a stark contrast to the previous track. It is a single acoustic guitar. It says a lot about the subject matter. These lyrics are important, do not deny yourself the chance to read them.
Track 5. The Fool
A great instrumental track that breaks from the musical consistency of the rest of the album in its structure and complexity. The Fool is one of two tracks on the album not credited primarily to Mangum. And so you have the March of the record. It has a military flair to it. Another solid variation on a common set of themes.
Track 6. Holland 1945
This one is the hit. The ballad. The fight. The battle cry. Rocking out. Roses. High energy. A two-stepping love story. Once you learn about the inspiration for this album and you come back to this track, the significance of the lyrics become surreal, sublime even.
“But now we must pack up every piece
Of the life we used to love
Just to keep ourselves
At least enough to carry on“
Lament. Loss. Adversity. Change. Holland, 1945.
This is the part where I tell you that Jeff Mangum makes several references to The Diary of Anne Frank throughout the album, but especially this song. I’ll leave it at that.
Track 7. Communist Daughter
I get a little Deerhunter from this track. Particularly, Bradford’s Halcyon Digest album comes to me in the background noises. The music falls away to expose it. It leaves an appropriately solemn and haunting silence on the end of side one.
Track 8. Oh Comely
Bright and bubbly. Mangum’s lyrics are admittedly difficult at first, but as with anything, one absorbs them through multiple listens.
My notes from my very first listen to this track say “It’s so hard to take it all in at once, especially for the first time. Who are these songs to? He’s clearly doing *something* here. There is so much cohesion on this album, he is consistent. The tracks flow, but I haven’t grasped it yet.”
I’ll let the details revealed on Holland, 1945 speak here as well. This is another highlight on the album, without a doubt. The percussion on the guitar is a neat little touch. Very cool track. All eight minutes of it.
Track 9. Ghost
Holy-moley, that fuzz bass is straight off of an Emerson, Lake & Palmer record. This song builds. The album gains some energy now (and that is by no means meant to say anything qualitative about the softer songs here). The saw is back. With what I hope is the “zanzithophone” mentioned on the album-insert.
Track 10. (untitled)
Those must be Uilleann pipes! Everyone’s gotta love a good bagpipe from time to time. They don’t leave spaces between notes because they don’t incorporate a function to stop airflow. This song is very fun. Such an interesting sense of melody. This song is also untitled. It’s basically the Led Zeppelin IV of the album.
Track 11. Two-Headed Boy Pt. Two
An appropriate ending. This song discusses the present in stead of the past. There is a sense of having grown in the voice of the narrator. He is no longer a child. Family. Dreams. Union. Memories. God. The imagery is as vivid as ever, and revisits many of the common tropes found throughout the album. The last line is remarkable:
“She is all you could need. Don’t hate her when she get’s up and leaves.”
And then he gets up and leaves. You hear it. You have to. You have to hear Jeff Mangum moving on to the next thing. Experiences only happen once, but you can’t blame the experience for its own temporality. We must move on with the memories of our experiences worth holding on to. Neutral Milk Hotel will never record this album again, but the recording is a memory. It’s our memories that allow us to revisit experiences and love them again. Once again, I encourage you to consider Mangum’s passion for Anne Frank and how our memories can allow us to unite with things and people we would otherwise be forever separated from.
This album really is masterful. It is one of the more unique albums I’ve come across recently, and I am very grateful for that. It contains multitudes of idiosyncrasies which lend it much replay value. There’s an odd juxtaposition between simplicity of language/familiarity/repetition against the overwhelming magnitude and scope of this album. It has a story-telling specificity intertwined with the vaguely picturesque musings of an oracle.
Throughout the record, one’s mind can certainly wander, and that wandering once influenced by the lyrical content of the album has a tendency toward the dark and disturbed, but every now and then Jeff calls out as if to say “Over here! Follow my voice, it will be alright.”