Sunday, February 23, 2014

What is it about this album?

David Rice's "You ruined Neutral Milk Hotel: Nostalgia, millennials and the return of Jeff Mangum" in Salon is about whether his onetime boiling-hot obsession with Neutral Milk Hotel's In the Aeroplane Over the Sea can survive seeing NMH's guiding spirit, Jeff Mangum, live in concert.
More so than anything else I can point to, the album holds the power of genuine mythology. It’s not just mythic in scope, theme and reputation; it feels like a body of mythic experience, animated by some original energy from before the Common Era. Whoever or whatever authored the album feels as remote in time and space as the Big Bang, and as omnipresent.
I, too, was captivated by this album when I first heard it in 1998. Yet to this day, I can't quite figure out why. Rice's explanation doesn't cut it for me, as it seems to be more about the lyrics than the music itself. The words wash over me, comprehensible (Mangum is the farthest thing from a mumbler one can imagine) yet not really delivering a message that my mind registers.

If it's purely the sound, what is it about the sound? Am I a huge horn slut (the brass is quite prominent)? Is the musical saw the equivalent of heroin? Some of the songs, like "Holland, 1945", give me the same pleasure as Phil Spector's "wall of sound" production; that could be a factor.

I don't get why this album gets under other people's skins, either. I don't go out of my way to bring this album up in conversation, but it seems like whenever I do (among musicphiles, anyway), the other person has heard it. Not just heard of it, but heard it. And the loves/not-loves ratio is high.

There hasn't been a Neutral Milk Hotel album since In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. Maybe that's because Mangum doesn't quite know why it works, either.

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