Whenever I try and pindown the modern myth of Jeff Mangum, I always come back to ghost stories. Not the disturbing stories designed to leave you unsettled and keep you up at night. But stories of apparitions appearing and leaving those who witness their visage with questions that they’ll never get answered. You’re then left wondering if creaks on your floorboards or rumbles in your walls are that ghost or just your imagination. Eventually you might doubt you ever saw a ghost at all.
Twenty years ago today, Neutral Milk Hotel released their seminal record, In The Aeroplane Over The Sea, on Merge Records. While the title might not carry the same weight as Nevermind or even say Weezer’ Blue Album – and certainly didn’t muster the same immediate uproar as either of those records – Aeroplane’s continuing legacy puts it in the pantheon of definitive rock records of the 90s. That we don’t really know that much about Jeff Mangum, the songwriting force behind the project, is astounding in this day and age. After countless thinkpieces, reunion tours, and endless dissection from fans, he and his music still remain elusive. That’s not an easy feat. It’s as if he himself is a ghost living among us. Myself and other fans have had numerous opportunities in the last six years to actually see Mangum perform in-person – first with a solo tour and then with the full Neutral Milk Hotel band. Even still, those performances never answered the questions.
At the first solo show I saw at The Moore, one audience member shouted, “Are you okay?” To which he replied, “Why wouldn’t I be? Do I not seem okay?” Someone then shouted back at him, “No!” The exchange was highly inappropriate, but it also spoke to the curiosity of everyone in the room. If you didn’t find out about Aeroplane right when it came out, the album came packaged with the oral myth of Mangum. How he wrote a record that was probably somewhat inspired by Anne Frank (Mangum supposedly had dreams of a family during the holocaust after reading The Diary Of Anne Frank, there’s also numerous allusions to Frank’s story with lines like “Anna’s ghost all around” on the title track) and his sudden disappearance from public life. Mangum even turned down an opportunity for the band to open for R.E.M. It makes me think of David Bowie’s Blackstar – how for a few days it was simply a great new Bowie record, then after his death it became a document tangled with clues and prophecies about Bowie’s illness and mortality.
Aeroplane more than warrants constant dissection, even if Mangum hadn’t become a recluse. The album is filled with gruesome, fantastical poetry that veers wildly from beautiful to unsettling. When you’re channelling something as horrific as the atrocities of the holocaust (or narrative eerily similar to it), it seems only natural that you allow the work to delve into the artist’s darker inclinations. Within the first verse of the first song, “The King of Carrot Flowers Pt. One,” he sets a dastardly scene:
When you were young, you were the king of carrot flowers
And how you built a tower tumbling through the trees
In holy rattlesnakes that fell all around your feet
And your mom would stick a fork right into daddy's shoulder
And dad would throw the garbage all across the floor
As we would lay and learn what each other's bodies were for
All this goes on over surprisingly jaunty acoustic guitar strums with Mangum’s doubled, feverish vocals serving as some sort of freak-folk greek chorus. It’s a lot to take in on first listen and, if we’re being totally honest, not necessarily welcoming. I’ve never been able to fault anyone who didn’t connect with this album. It asks a lot of the listener. To find affection for Mangum’s possessed voice, to take in the surrealistic and mangled imagery, and to really dig the sound of a singing saw means some listeners will have to make concessions to break through the album’s off-putting shields.
I distinctly remember the first time I heard Neutral Milk Hotel. I was a teenage message board lurker, sifting through the music tracking website Last.FM at 3 a.m. on some group where people shared their favorite lyrics (you could through “bored” and “lonely” as descriptors for me there too). Someone had posted the lyrics to “Holland, 1945.” I can remember reading the words in silence aside from the creaks of my house. As I read, I had a vivid idea in my head of what the song must sound like. The lyrics painted such vivid pictures, with “faces filled with flies” and “white roses in their eyes.” Even the title set the scene quickly, already putting us in World War II. I was sure the vocalist would have a voice like Cat Stevens and the music would be one of those grandiose 70s epics with low guitars and sweeping strings. Just thinking about it was moving and I couldn’t wait to hear it. When I did track down the track, I was hit in the face with blown-out acoustic guitars, brutally loud drums, trumpet fanfare, and Mangum’s voice shrieking boisterously above it all. Not what I thought I was going to be getting at all. It was better. Moments like hearing “Holland, 1945” for the first time are what I still chase after to this day. Something that can knock you back and surprise you.
By the time I discovered Neutral Milk Hotel, nearly a decade had already passed since its release. But I think it’s safe to say I was far from the first person to be late to this game. And that’s what leads to the arbiter of Aeroplane’s continued legacy – the internet. These days finding music on the internet or internet communities upholding an album is more or less common. Aeroplane was uniquely suited for this new era, even if it mostly preceded it.
It’s an album that already sounded like it was destined for cult favorite status, finding a devoted audience who would hold the music closely and evangelize whenever they could. But it’s the mysteries of the album that really made it so poised to find eternal life over broadband. If you had a copy of Aeroplane, it compelled you to look deeper. The band wasn’t really providing any insight into those secrets, especially as Mangum began to disappear from public life shortly after 98. Before, these fans would be spread out across the world with little ways to connect unless someone took the initiative to form some sort of fan club. Even then, it’d be hard to coralle everyone together. So the internet’s original intention, to connect like-minded people and share ideas, was being realized in a small way with Neutral Milk fans. I can remember when a trailer for a film by Elephant 6 (the Athens, GA based collective of which Mangum and Neutral Milk Hotel are a part of) released online and speculation began to circulate that we could actually see Mangum in the clip… dressed as a lobster.
It’s little clues like that which turned fans into proverbial “ghost hunters.” The album left so much unanswered and Mangum had been so silent that any hint of a connection was over examined. Alongside continued critical praise from outlets like Pitchfork, Stereogum, and Rolling Stone years after the release, the albums reputation moved from a spark to an explosion. And I wish I could say it didn’t manifest itself in toxic ways as well, but that’s the other side of the Internet. Forums like 4chan – a popular message board in which users post anonymously – gravitated toward the album and helped establish it as part of the Internet canon alongside records like King Crimson’s In The Court of the Crimson King and Animal Collective’s Merriweather Post Pavilion.
Inevitably what started as rampant fanism turned it memes and perversions of the record in the name of irony. Given the record’s themes and the fowl reputation 4chan as built, a lot of this turned anti-semitic and repugnant. There were plenty of lazy jokes to be had over the “semen stains the mountaintops” line on “Communist Daughter”, enough to warrant their own Know Your Meme page (NSFW). Both the Internet and removing yourself from your work are double-edged swords. With those factors in conjunction, the art is free to be interpreted and recontextualized however the consumer sees fit. You don’t typically see perversion of an artist’s intentions until they’ve long been dead with no one to defend them, but Aeroplane has hardly ever been conventional.
Twenty years out from its original release, trying to figure out what the record “means” now is not an easy question to answer. There’s plenty to glean from the narrative of the record about dangers of fascism and the violence it befalls on the innocent. There’s also warnings about how reading too into someone’s work can disrupt the entire narrative. But again, I come back to ghosts. The ghost of Anne Frank, the ghost of the Two Headed Boy, and the ghost of the living Jeff Mangum.
There are little moments throughout the record that are akin to those haunting creaks in your house or a gust of wind sweeping through the window. Little intricacies and stories within the record that build upon the myth, but stand alone themselves as magic. On the epic “Oh Comely,” Mangum recorded the entire eight-minute track (aside from overdubs) in one take that was originally intended to be a scratch track. At the very end of the song, if you listen close, you can hear producer Robert Schneider yell, “Holy shit!” And that’s before you even dig into the fact that the song is about siamese twins freezing to death in the forest. There’s also the curious religious allusions through the album, like the somewhat divisive “King of Carrot Flowers Pts. 2 & 3” in which Mangum bellows, “I love you Jesus Christ/Jesus Christ I love you, yes I do.” For me, the most moving moments always come at the end of the album on “Two Headed Boy Pt. 2.” First, there’s these stirring lines:
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
There anguish and devotion in those words has always eluded me. I’ve never been able to pindown if he’s being hopeful or hopeless. Does he believe in God or does he not? Undoubtedly, it’s really none of my business. But the way he poses his sentiments is designed to sink into you, to leave you with the questions to focus on yourself and not Mangum. And then there’s the coda in which he invokes a minor key version of “Two Headed Boy Pt. 1.” Even just the chords chugging and changing tempo sends shivers into, to use Mangum’s own words, the notches of my spine. But it’s the final words on the album that really hit home: “but don’t hate her when she gets up to leave.”
I wouldn’t be the first writer or fan to point out the significance of the noise that follows those lyrics, hearing Mangum actually getting up and leaving. However, reflecting on those words 20 years later makes it even more profound – at least for me. Mangum didn’t really fully leave us. He’s still alive. I love to imagine that he’s somewhere in Athens enjoying his quiet life, making music and writing stories for himself. He’s even given us more than we could’ve asked for with those tours and a chance for the legion of “new” (post-1998) fans to experience these songs in-person. Yet, it’s in our nature to still want more. He could feed us “tomatoes and radio wires” forever and we’d still want another album, another tour, more merch, and so on and so on. For whatever reasons he may have, Mangum’s opted to stay away. Even if he did decide to resurface with a new album (of which there’s been speculation), the influence and legacy of Aeroplane will continue on its own path as a spirit moving among the living.
Whether a ghost or a myth, maybe it’s a line in another one of the album’s iconic songs that really best captures it: “How strange it is to be anything at all.”
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It’s time again for Friday on My Mind. Our weekly blog post where we look at videos centered around one common theme. This is a collaborative effort between KEXP and King 5 News.