If there's one argument that I love to make against all those crazy people who reliably inform me that "modern music sucks", it's found in 5 simple words. The Elephant 6 Recording Company. Oh, what's that? Most of you have never heard of them? That's unfortunate, but in a way, I genuinely envy you. Like the parent that now gets to watch their children open their presents on Christmas morning, knowing how much they're going to enjoy them, you're in for a real treat once you start listening to the various projects that fall under the loose confederation of the Elephant Six Recording Company. Just in case any of you guys haven't worked this out all by yourselves yet, Neutral Milk Hotel are one of the bands that fell into this group, of which their frontman and creative mastermind, Jeff Mangum, was one of the founding members, along with members of The Apples In Stereo and Olivia Tremor Control. While this group never got the mainstream attention that they so obviously had earned, during the late 1990s their fanbase pretty much defined "cult following", and never more so than with this album, the final release from Neutral Milk Hotel.
It's not really surprising that the group informally disbanded after this, to be honest. Their first full length album, On Avery Island
was underwhelming even without the benefit of hindsight, and frankly this album set the bar impossibly high for anything that Mangum might have been planning afterwards. The album itself, you see, is completely extraordinary. While it isn't a concept album as such, the continuity of music and themes, combined with the fact that in the liner notes for the album all the lyrics are written as one long run-on sentence means that the listener can't help but get the feeling that this album is very much telling a story. Is that a contradiction in terms? Re-reading it, of course it is. But it simply does not matter
, given how much of this album is contradictory. On first listen it's a delightful stomp through a fuzzy range of musical styles and instruments, with even the odd comic moment (such as Mangum's cries of "I love you Jesus Christ" at the start of King Of Carrot Flowers, Pts. 2-3
. Then it suddenly hits you, midway through Two-Headed Boy
, a song that lies at the heart of everything this album stands for. Consisting virtually in its entirety of Mangum singing with a lone acoustic guitar behind him, it's a love song alright, but not as we know it. How can it be, with lines such as,
"Made for his lover who's floating and choking with her hands across her face
And in the dark we will take off our clothes
And they'll be lacing fingers through the notches in your spine"?
What makes it even more powerful is the contrast that it creates the rest of the music, with its complex arrangements and sense of fun. Sure, the whole album has a deep sadness running through it, but on Two-Headed Boy
, when you can hear Mangum's voice straining to reach the emotional peaks of his entire career, it becomes more than just a meaningful song at the heart of the album. And then, just as everything dies down towards the end, a brass section comes in, leading us into the funereal march of The Fool
. Just like that, the track changes, and we're off on another part of the journey.
As I said, the "one man with a guitar" nature of Two-Headed Boy
is very different from a lot of the rest of this album, and this is nowhere better shown than on Holland, 1945
. This is about...wait for it, Anne Frank. Yeah, that Anne Frank (the teenage victim of the Holocaust who kept a diary throughout her hiding in Holland). The music is covered in a thick layer of fuzz, and the lyrics have that odd juxtaposition of loose images of life, death, religion and sex that ultimately make up so much of this album. Although by rights Holland, 1945
should make Two-Headed Boy
seem like a cheerful walk through a park as the sun sets, it really doesn't seem like that, as all sorts of instruments seem to be carrying out the musical equivalent of uncontrolled detonations while Mangum sings on, blissfully unaware.
Have we established yet that this record really is pretty odd? Because that honestly can't be laboured enough. The musical styles here are many, with constant changes in the music being something truly remarkable. Since Mangum was the undisputed leader of the Neutral Milk Hotel project, this record can be attributed to him in its entirety, whether it's the subdued overtly sexual Communist Daughter
, with his faint whispers of "semen stains the mountain tops", or the ear-opening title-track of In The Aeroplane Over The Sea
, where the narrator of the album looks forward, sees his death, and accepts it. The lines,
"And one day we will die
And our ashes will fly from the aeroplane over the sea
But for now we are young
Let us lay in the sun
And count every beautiful thing we can see"
strike you set out on paper, being so simple in their ideas (and also strangely logical), but sung in Mangum's emotionally climaxing voice, they assume a significance that seems utterly religious in their fervour.
Ah, religion. The most divisive topic imaginable, and yet it fits so smoothly at the heart of this record. Of course, we're all familiar with the criticisms of it, but there's also something comforting in the idea that there is a life awaiting us after this one, and it's impossible not to look at this without keeping that somewhere in the back of our minds. Magnum was brought up as a Christian, and it's hard to avoid the feeling that the fatalism here is both genuine as well as having an inevitable effect on the music as a result of his own beliefs. That's not to say that it's oppressive, not at all. While In The Aeroplane Over The Sea
does most definitely have a point to make, frankly your guess is as good as mine as to what the precise message is. The two instrumental interludes (The Fool
, the latter of which seems to feature bagpipes, both progress the album in a way that's striking; the most immediately identifiable part of Neutral Milk Hotel's music is Jeff Mangum's voice, and deprived of that the music seems to become yet more oblique, as we wait for the return of the music's interpreter.
A lot of this sounds faintly cheesy, I'm sure. And you know, that's understandable. I've talked about God, sex, life and death so far, and somehow attempted to equate all 4 of them with one album that the overwhelming majority of music fans worldwide won't have heard of. But remember what I said at the start about opening presents on Christmas day? There's always the fear that your presents frankly aren't going to be that great, isn't there? That you're going to have to go back to school and hide at the back while everyone else talks about their "like, totally awesome" Christmas. If your parents were anything like mine, that never ended up being the case, and that's why I'm respectfully asking you to trust me on this one. I personally want you to listen to this album. Ideally go on from here to other projects released by the Elephant 6 collective, as a lot of them are wonderful music, but it's got to be remembered that there aren't many albums which not only end a band's career, but turn their frontman into a recluse. Mangum's barely been associated with any music since finishing touring this album. As things stand, it seems likely to be the summation of his musical work (frankly if he comes back with something to rival this, it's going to make the prodigal son seem like a bit of a chancer). But even if he doesn't come back, and this remains standing as his finest creative achievement, then let me assure you, the next person who tells me that "modern music sucks" had better be ready to plead complete ignorance of this CD. Like a lot of the most remarkable music of the 20th century (Pet Sounds
by The Beach Boys, Forever Changes
by Love, Odessy And Oracle
by The Zombies among others), the overt energy and happiness in the record veils the fact that there"s a deep running strain of unhappiness and loneliness running through the entire album. And like each of those albums, this is a classic of modern music. And that
, is all I"ve got to say.