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May 14, 2012  | by: Christopher Burns

Neutral Milk Hotel

The story of Jeff Mangum and Neutral Milk Hotel is one of the greatest Rock and Roll tales of all time. His seminal indie album, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, is considered by many critics to be among the greatest albums to come out of the 1990s. It was even sampled by mash-up artist GirlTalk. Despite his underground fame and influential work, Mangum is a great enigma, disappearing for years at a time to explore esoteric folk genres and even openly crying on stage.

Neutral Milk Hotel was more of a project than a traditional band as, oftentimes, it was manned by Mangum and whoever happened to be around at the time. NMH began as a recording project in the early 1990s while Mangum was wandering the United States, couch surfing at friends houses existening in a state of permanently unemployment. During this time, the project released its first official record (though Mangum had previously released a few self recorded tapes) entitled Everything Is. It is the most obscure and least-collected of NMH’s releases.

Jeff Mangum of Neutral Milk Hotel

Upon recording the group’s second album On Avery Island the members traveled between New York City and Athens, Georgia before settling in Denver to record a follow up album.

In the Aeroplane Over the Sea was recorded during these Denver sessions, and was released in 1998. It remains an incredibly popular indie rock album, and is regarded as a staple of underground rock and roll playlists. Its songs are beautiful and tragic; the result of a period of unceasing dreams Mangum had about a Jewish family living through the holocaust during World War II. In the Aeroplane is especially noted for Mangum’s incredible lyrics and instrumental experimentation.

The fifth song, Holland, 1945, exemplifies these praises with emotionally taxing lyrics (“Where their bodies once moved but don’t move anymore/ And it’s so sad to see the world agree / That they’d rather see their faces fill with flies/ All when I’d want to keep white roses in their eyes” ) and eerie brass instrumental experimentation throughout.

It is a nearly perfect album in that it combines imperfect aspects of lo-fi pop, punk, and folk in creating what many consider a masterpiece of alternative rock. Every listen reveals something about the album that you have never noticed before, and continues to send goosebumps down your arms after countless listens. In The Aeroplane’s messages, though seemingly nonsensical, reveal the passionate existence of a deeply troubled young man struggling to find his place in a forgetful world. It making such little sense, it makes perfect sense.

Following the album’s release, however, Mangum suffered somewhat of a breakdown. After a year of incessant touring, Neutral Milk Hotel refused all future dates, even turning down an opening gig for REM. After this, Mangum essentially went into hiding, rarely appearing in public, playing only at the bequest of friend’s bands, and using pseudonyms while performing live (ex. World of Wild Beards Incorporated). Throughout the years, hoaxes riddled the internet, claiming that Mangum would begin touring again, including one which was good enough to get featured in Rolling Stone.

Mangum on Stage

Mangum took this time to explore other kinds of music and influences. He famously became a fan of Bulgarian Folk Music, and released a project centered around a Folk Festival in that country. Of the project, which was released as Orange Twin Field Works Volume 1, he noted that “’I’ve been working on this for years and years. I wish I could work on it all the time, but if I work on it for more than a few hours a day I start going insane. It can take an entire week to make twenty seconds of music.”

To the delight of his fans in 2011 Mangum began touring again. Playing numerous dates across the world, he performed Aeroplane staples and some other works. It was revealed that he would be on the bill at Coachella, and subsequently toured the entire West Coast. Unfortunately, when he has been asked whether he would ever record another album he said “I don’t know. It would be nice, but sometimes I kind of doubt it.” For such a reclusive man, Mangum has a dominating personality and a musical sound guaranteed to inspire emotion in any human being.

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