This article originally appeared in the March 5, 1998 issue of the Boston Phoenix.
If it's difficult to sum up the exquisite sonic splendor of Neutral Milk Hotel's second album, In the Aeroplane over the Sea (Merge), it's even more difficult to convey this CD's fascinating, elliptical spiritualism. Shaded with cryptic allegory, illuminated by a patchwork faith that embraces Jesus Christ, angels, flying Victrolas, and reincarnation as just a few of its icons and tenets, it dwells in a twilight of rambunctious souls, secret songs, and bright, bubbly, terrible scenes. And it heralds the arrival of a formidable new voice in popular music.
That voice belongs to the band's 26-year-old singer, songwriter, and only permanent member: Jeff Mangum. He grew up in a deeply religious family in rural Louisiana, though he makes it clear, over the phone from Athens, Georgia, that "I wasn't brought up, like, Southern Baptist burn-in-Hell. I was brought up, like, weird sorta psychedelic Christianity." And he wrote most of the first Neutral Milk Hotel album, On Avery Island (Merge, 1995), with an acoustic guitar and a mere handful of chords while living in the closets and on the floors of friends, composing for these friends wild, hymnlike, heart-wrenching songs to soothe their troubles. The songs of In the Aeroplane, like those of On Avery Island, get fleshed out until they buzz like a cross between a folkie in the midst of a caffeine-overdose seizure (Neutral Milk Hotel have been known to call it "fuzz folk," though if they weren't playing acoustic guitars it would almost certainly sound like punk) and a tripped-out high-school marching band outfitted with a thrift shop's worth of obscure instruments from accordion to zanzithophone. Yet on the album's centerpieces, the boundless seven-minute epic "Oh, Comely" and "Two-Headed Boy," Mangum virtually redefines the emotional possibilities for one man and an acoustic.
Mangum can be pretty opaque when he wants. His trademark is an unrelenting lyricism -- long, dazzling arcs of gilded melodies and run-on sentences that keep unfolding in alliterative twists and jackknife turns, sometimes so free-associative, they sound as if they had been created out of thin air as a spontaneous dada-ist soliloquy. He spins tales the way Jimi Hendrix played guitar -- burning words and phrases rolling out in a strange technicolor beauty that keeps blooming long after the images he's describing have ceased to make any rational sense. In the Aeroplane opens with the following: "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 knees." Bizarre, surreal -- but vivid.
Even Mangum's most patently nonsensical musings have an amusing, playfully poetic ring. He once wrote an item to publicize an appearance by New Zealand singer/songwriter Chris Knox that concluded: "What makes great art? Music? Is it tied to shame or sex, or both -- or broth? It is none of these things but only in being born we walk in the womb forever battling egg-shaped saucers." This is Mad Lib for the ages, the kind of flirtation with nonsense that has engendered more than a few comparisons between Mangum and the king of such dalliances, Bob Dylan. More typical, though, is the kind of boundless verbiage like the following, from "Oh, Comely":