Review Summary: Sadly, this doesn't reach that bar set by Jeff Mangum's crowning achievement. Despite this, Ferris Wheel On Fire is still worth a listen for Neutral Milk Hotel fans.
I think many people can agree that In The Aeroplane Over The Sea, the landmark release from Neutral Milk Hotel, is a striking piece of art that is drenched in subtle shades of sadness, despite it's catchy and relaxing melodies. An album that influenced so many folk rock bands and left an impression on many listeners must be a masterwork, but it always seemed less like a planed out magnum opus and much more of a piece of accidental genius. Jeff Mangum, who is the main mind behind the project, and company never exuded a masterpiece attitude in the music, nor was this intended to be a monolithic and genre defining album, like it was. Even before this, Neutral Milk Hotel was making experimental indie music that pales in comparison to their greatest achievement. But, when you peak with an album that is nearly perfect, what else is there to do" Do you keep making the same kind of music" Do you try something fresh and new, in hopes that you achieve the same amount of greatness of your previous release" Do you accept that you may never be able to reach that high again"
If your name is Jeff Mangum and you are in a band named Neutral Milk Hotel, you became disheartened by the demands of being a band that was starting to gain a modest buzz in the music scene and, in an understandable panic, decided to disband the group in 1999. And, for a long time, the world only had a few Neutral Milk Hotel releases to enjoy and In The Aeroplane Over The Sea became an even bigger hit with time and reached a high none of the band members probably even expected. The group left their fans with near complete radio silence, besides some interviews, some collaborations, and announcements of new music that did not go anywhere. This was until, in the last few days of 2011, a Neutral Milk Hotel box set was released. Among this collection was a new EP, titled Ferris Wheel on Fire, contains previously unreleased songs and other oddities.
All together, these songs take a much more stripped back approach to the song structure. Mangum goes into this EP almost alone and being armed with, for the most part, his voice and his acoustic guitar only. The music performed here is still as melodic as what was shown in their seminal work, but it's simplistic arrangements work against it, with the majority of the compilation feeling slightly empty and void of atmosphere that would add to the sorrowful or aggressive emotions that Mangum is always known for portraying. While the moniker has used this in their previous works, it was always used as a tool, not the default. This being said, his stark and off-kilter singing is just as emotional and harrowing as it always is, even on the weaker portions of early Neutral Milk Hotel works. The acoustic guitar playing, for what it is, is well written and packed full of charm and saddening energy. Mangum proves to us that he does know his way around a simplistic melody, even if the lack of anything else leaves much to be desired. This lack of atmosphere is made obvious by the production, which only highlights how these engaging sounds and striking, simplistic arrangements are unfortunately isolated and lonesome. This EP is also quite lightweight when it comes to the production, which makes the music much less attention grabbing, barring the last song. My Dreamgirl Don't Exist, which is said last song, is a live track that has the raw sound one would expect from a recording of this nature. While the roughness of this song is understandable and this song is one of the strongest tracks, this jump in recording quality is jarring to the listener and feels like the wrong decision for both the song and the EP.
Potential for an amazing work of art is here, but too much falls in the way of reaching that bar that Mangum unintentionally set for himself in 1998. With a few tweaks, a more full sound, and some more strong content, this could have been a truly worthy successor to the great work they became famous for. This merely feels like a blueprint that desperately needs more work to get past that rough draft feel. That said, this is still worth at least one listen if you enjoy the works of Mangum and his moniker and want to hear more of what people came to love on In The Aeroplane Over The Sea. It's far from a bad release and is bleeding with the earnest charm that fans expect. It does seem like we will never get another fully fleshed out release that will live up to the name’s masterpiece, as the last thing the band, as in the lineup from Aeroplane, has done is go on tour in 2013. This means that Mangum's emotional vision that was put into these songs will only stay decent, rather than reach that potential they have.