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Neutral Milk Hotel's epic "Aeroplane."

By Carly Carioli

MARCH 9, 1998:  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":

Your father made fetuses with flesh-licking ladies/while you and your mother were asleep in the trailer park/thunderous sparks from the dark of the stadiums/the music and medicine you needed for comforting/so make all your fat fleshy fingers to moving/and pluck all your silly strings/and bend all your notes for me/soft silly music is meaningful, magical/the movements were beautiful/all in your ovaries/all of them milking with green fleshy flowers/while powerful pistons were sugary sweet machines/smelling of semen all under the garden/was all you were needing when you still believed in me.

Which begins to sound like a Mad Lib but isn't quite. Like a lot of Mangum's lyrics, it gives you the feeling he isn't sure where he's headed when he starts out and is just as surprised as you are when, at the end, he finds himself so far out in left field. As in "The King of Carrot Flowers, Pt. Three," where he's motoring along on a perfectly straight-ahead idea and then throws an impossible curve: "Up and over we go through the wave and undertow/I will float until I learn how to swim/Inside my mother in a garbage bin."

"The songs are still just little films that I see that have a certain amount of emotion attached to them," he acknowledges, "but to explain them would be really, really difficult." Still, he gives the impression that he's determined to make sense of himself. A little further along in "The King of Carrot Flowers," he illustrates just how difficult this can be: "I will shout until they know what I mean/I mean the marriage of a dead dog sing/And a synthetic flying machine."

"There are only a couple of parts that seem to me to be pure dream-sequence type of stuff," he explains. "But 95 percent of the album is either experiences that I've had or experiences that friends have had, or historical figures -- it's all real stuff. I mean, I could write a song where I'm just farting images all over the place, but I don't think I'd be very satisfied with that. Even though when other people do that I think it's amazing. I love that, you know.

"Like, when I wrote 'Oh, Comely,' I felt really great about it. I wrote it till six in the morning. I was staying at my dad's house at the time, and I was walking around the kitchen, and my dad heard me, and he's like, 'What are you doing, son?' And I came in there and I said, 'Well, Dad, I just wrote this song, it's really pretty freaked out.' So I played it for him and he made me feel okay about it. And I think that 'Two-Headed Boy, Pt. Two' is that way, and 'Holland, 1945' was that way, where I would be writing them and be feeling like things were right, and then I'd get tripped up by a line and suddenly think, 'Oh my God, is this too much? Is this too fucked up? Are people gonna understand what I'm trying to say?' And it's taken seeing other people get the same reaction that I'm getting out of it to realize that I'm not just crazy."

If you dig around a little, you'll find more than a little method to Mangum's madness. Although he's grown rather tight-lipped when it comes to expounding on the stories swimming in the prose of In the Aeroplane, he gave up some quickie plot sketches to Denver's Westword last year while the album was still being recorded. "One of my new songs ["Oh, Comely"] talks about Siamese twins freezing to death in the forest," he said. "One is saying, 'Don't worry. We've been attached forever, and we'll end up in someone else's stomach together anyway.' "

Of "Two-Headed Boy," which is broken into two nonadjacent parts on the album, he said, "it's about a two-headed boy who makes a magic radio for his girlfriend, but then she breaks it. It's also about the end of the world, and he's in a jar, and you can't really tell if he's on display or real or not. But it's also kind of like his dreams. At the end, everything he's ever wanted is in these packages under a Christmas tree in the snow."

These kinds of scenarios can be a bit difficult to follow in any kind of linear way. Time, place, and identity stay fluid on In the Aeroplane -- the narrative settings can jump halfway around the world, or 25 years back in time, in the course of a few lines. "The album takes place in the past and the present," says Mangum. "But for me time is kinda weird anyway. I don't think I'm in the now very much. A lot of what we base the now on culturally -- I feel pretty out of it most of the time. I live in an insular world. I surround myself with old records and weird shit; I forget that most kids these days don't know what a vinyl record is. So it freaks me out."

To make things even more complicated, some of the album's narrative lines are sustained over the course of several different songs, with slight variations in character. You'd have to know that the brother of one of Mangum's friends committed suicide to figure out certain connections. The dead brother haunts a ferris wheel in "Holland, 1945." And he lurks on "Two-Headed Boy, Pt. Two," which begins as a father's lament for his son in the third person, then switches to a brother's lament in the first person: "You left with your head filled with flames/And you watched as your brains fell out through your teeth/Push the pieces in place, make your smile sweet . . . And in my dreams you're alive."

Almost all of Mangum's characters are united in some grief or another, trying to surmount an inexorable sadness. Although In the Aeroplane touts the endless, infinite recyclability of the human spirit -- the promise of reincarnation as a dream, or a tune that won't leave your head, or as a literal fact -- it is also obsessed with what happens to those left behind. So it is also an album about the need to remember, the fear of forgetting -- and the tricks memory plays.

During all of this Mangum hovers somewhere in the wings whispering words of gracious encouragement. He's consoling the Two-Headed Boy (after his girlfriend breaks the radio), who also seems to stand in for Mangum's bereaved friend -- "There is no reason to grieve." And on "Ghost," a girl in New York City -- who may or may not be a reincarnated angel -- jumps from "the top of a burning apartment building, 14 stories high," and Mangum is again spinning the story in her favor: "I know that she will live forever/All goes on and on and on/And she goes/And now she knows she'll never be afraid."

The liner notes refer to an overriding theme of "endless endless" -- "the belief that things seem to contain a white light within them that I see as eternal." Yet what ultimately gives In the Aeroplane its ghostly, déjà vu resonance isn't just lines like "All goes on and on and on." It's the way this cosmic give-and-take, Mangum's sense of the universal interconnectedness of things, permeates his characters and his stories. Sometimes (as in the Siamese twins and the Two-Headed Boy) they're actually connected at the hip. Sometimes he simply makes the connection explicit: "The only girl I ever loved/Was born with flowers in her eyes/But then they buried her alive one evening 1945/With just her sister at her side . . . Now she's a little boy in Spain/Playing pianos filled with flames." And sometimes the connections are more subtle, suggested by a repeated phrase or motif. In the middle section of "Oh, Comely" he seems to retell the same story a little differently: "I know they buried her body with others/Her sister and mother and five hundred families/And will she remember me 50 years later?"

"Everything's sorta interconnected, and everything is reliant on everything else to exist, and everyone is a part of that. And I just think that, I don't know, the way things are set up right now doesn't leave very much room for wonderment. So much of it is like driven to pay your bills and your rent and stuff, you know?" He pauses, and chuckles, still struggling to make himself clear. "I don't know. It gets hard to explain."

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