- They'll be back: Jeff Mangum (second from left) and Neutral Milk Hotel.
The most influential indie-rock record of the past decade reverently declares I love you Jesus Christ, features the songs "Two-Headed Boy" (parts one and two) and "The King of Carrot Flowers" (part one, then parts two and three combined), uses semen as a lyrical motif, crushes heavily on Anne Frank, lists a zanzithophone player in its liner notes, and whips up an unholy racket that sounds like several punk rockers and a Bulgarian wedding band trapped in an elevator together, desperately screaming for help. Stranger things will never happen.
Fortunately, Neutral Milk Hotel's In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, a carefully guarded secret upon its release in 1998, has been happening ever since. The record's vibrant, chaotic Salvation Army Marching Band sound and surrealist wordplay have inspired recent big shots from the Decemberists to the Arcade Fire to Clap Your Hands Say Yeah. Mysterious NMH mastermind Jeff Mangum -- who all but disappeared, shortly after Aeroplane's release -- became a full-fledged reclusive-genius deity, a beloved Salinger for the Pitchfork set. Pitchfork itself, meanwhile, recently deep-sixed the tepid Aeroplane review the online rock-crit site had originally run and replaced it with a fawning, triumphant 10.0 coronation.
Seven years later, the record's influence and capacity to fascinate have swelled to gargantuan proportions. Now, Los Angeles writer and critic Kim Cooper -- a devout lover of bubblegum pop and so-called "unpopular culture" in her 'zine Scram -- has taken the first real crack at unraveling Aeroplane's mystique, penning a tome for Continuum Books' immensely popular 33-1/3 series. Each selection is a pocket-sized hundred-or-so-pager devoted to the genesis, construction, and aftermath of one record, and although the series has enjoyed success with paeans to classics like the Smiths' Meat Is Murder and Prince's Sign o' the Times, Cooper's Aeroplane volume might be its biggest hit yet.
The record's ongoing critical revisionism has helped, of course, but Cooper insists that word of mouth has slowly turned Neutral Milk Hotel from near-unknown to near-mythic. "I think it's just based on how many people love it," she says. "People get very evangelical about this album. A record review can't do that. Who really cares if the record's got a 10.0, compared to sitting down with a friend who plays a song for you and it blows your mind?"
Cooper's book is a fairly straightforward rise-and-fall narrative, beginning with a gang of Louisiana college-radio rats who migrate on a whim to Athens, Georgia, while slowly coalescing into the Elephant 6 collective, a loose-knit crew of psychedelic-pop artistes who've found success with bands like Olivia Tremor Control and Of Montreal, but undoubtedly peaked with Neutral Milk Hotel. In-depth interviews with friends and collaborators -- including pop aficionado Robert Schneider, who produced Aeroplane at Pet Sounds, his Denver studio -- fill it out, but the famously distant Mangum transcends and haunts it all. He doesn't talk to Cooper on the record -- "He didn't immediately say no, and ultimately he didn't say yes," she says -- but you get just enough of a sense of the guy, from his affinity for rehearsing in the bathroom to his night terrors to his apparent obsession with Anne Frank's poignant WWII artifact, The Diary of a Young Girl.
Aeroplane perfected a psychotic carnival sound (from expertly fuzzed-out barn burners like "Holland 1945" to sweet, cryptic ballads like the title track), but Mangum's surrealist lyrics still dominate, filled with lovesick two-headed freaks floating in jars, semen-stained mountaintops, and flaming pianos, apartment buildings, and human heads. Cryptic Anne Frank references abound, but on the chilling "Oh Comely" -- a showcase for Mangum's mournfully strummed acoustic guitar and braying, famously polarizing voice -- he careens though verses of fantastically twisted imagery before settling on the shockingly direct: "And I know they buried her body with others/Her sister and mother and five hundred families/ And will she remember me 50 years later?/I wish I could save her in some sort of time machine."
"I think it was a personal connection with her as a writer and as a person, this really lovely adolescent who was just kind of flowering and becoming an adult and an intellectual, and it was all just wiped away by forces so much more powerful than her," Cooper says of the Jeff/Anne love affair. "Some people think that he was in love with her."
At first it's off-putting that Cooper largely avoids probing the meaning or backstory behind Aeroplane's beguiling lyrics, but ultimately it makes sense to leave all that to your own inclination and imagination. Mangum's seclusion is also a fuzzy affair, but though his refusal to record, perform, or submit to interviews shortly after the album's release was partly due to personal issues, Cooper's book heavily implies that much of it was show biz, borne of Mangum's desire to go out with a bang, slowly work his devotees into a deifying lather, and then descend from the mountain years later with a spectacular follow-up. Urban legend insists that he's gone completely bonkers, but the facts suggest that he knows exactly what he's doing -- in her text, Cooper makes the point of noting that Mangum is alive, lucid, and sane.
"If you listen to the music, it's obvious that there's a lot of thought that goes into everything," Cooper says. "It's not very random . . . There's a certain elegance to just walking away and leaving this kind of resounding note in the air."
And lo, just as Cooper's book comes out, new Neutral Milk Hotel demos surface online, capping a year that also saw Mangum show up onstage with old E6 buddies such as the Circulatory System and Olivia Tremor Control. The Aeroplane revival has reached critical mass, and the Great Comeback may in fact be upon us.
"That's certainly what [paramour and, coincidentally, zanzithophonist] Laura Carter thought he was doing," Cooper concludes. "That he was echoing artists from the past he liked, who disappear for periods and then come back when nobody's expecting something, really blowing people's minds. I hope he does."
Whether you know it or not, so do you.