I was introduced to Neutral Milk Hotel on a burned CD that a depressed girl gave me for my thirteenth birthday. It was just before my family left for a road trip to South Texas, driving through the wastelands of Idaho and Utah and New Mexico. I listened to the CD on repeat, over and over again, each time with more attention, like I was trying to decipher some ancient language. I’d never heard folk music with accordions and fuzzed-out bass and the deeply broken vocals that only Jeff Mangum can provide, at once telling stories from the past and giving us visions of the future all swirling together in a hurricane that’s singularly timeless. By the time we got to San Antonio, I was different. I was in love.
The only problem was that Neutral Milk Hotel had broken up a year earlier. It’s cruel, I know.
And so I spent lonely evenings going through message boards, hunting for rumors about Mangum, about Neutral Milk Hotel, about plans for a reunion or a new album or a secret show somewhere in the black hills of North Carolina. In rare interviews he’d explain that Neutral Milk Hotel would never record again, that their window had opened and closed, that he had moved on to something new. Mangum started releasing sound collages and field recordings under the names Alfred Snouts and Korena Pang—a name that curiously first appeared in liner notes of the 1996 release of On Avery Island. His eccentric behaviour added layer after layer to Neutral Milk Hotel’s—and even more so to Jeff Mangum’s— already intangible mythos.
Falling in love with Neutral Milk Hotel is falling in love with something that’s already ended.
But in a strangely romantic way, it’s fitting. In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is written about Anne Frank. Several lyrics reference the dates of her birth and death, her experience, and a strange romance between Mangum and her ghost. Mangum even mentioned the influence of The Diary of Anne Frank on his songwriting and, during a rare live performance, told an audience that “Holland, 1945” was expressly about Frank.
Mangum fell in love with someone who was already dead.
It’s that ubiquitous sense of loss that makes Neutral Milk Hotel so appealing: we’ve all felt love unrequited. Yes, the lyrics can often be melancholy and odd, but their underlying truth makes them accessible to everyone. As an artist, Mangum has mastered the craft of creating honest, unpretentious songs. Aeroplane opens with “King of Carrot Flowers, part I,” with the lyrics “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 feet.”
What does that even mean? Who is Mangum singing to? In reality, it doesn’t matter. The song flows with this melodic swell that invites everyone to sing along. We’re welcomed into a space where we create the backstories for the lyrics. Again, it’s Mangum’s emotional honesty that creates a malleable, almost universal song out of otherwise nonsensical lyrics.
And that’s what makes Neutral Milk Hotel such an enduring band. When someone tells you about them, they do it with stories about their teen years, or about lost love, or about their relationship with their parents. It’s the sign of a great band—of a great artist—that when anyone talks about Neutral Milk Hotel they’re really talking about themselves.
I ran a blog a few years ago called Help Me Find Jeff Mangum. I asked people to write about the first time they ever listened Neutral Milk Hotel. One of the best essays that was submitted was from my friend and colleague Lucas Miller. He writes:
"To arguments over where the commas go in “King of Carrot Flower’s, part III,” of determining if the little boy in “Holland, 1945” is Jeff Mangum or me, to discussing what role Anne Frank’s ghost plays in the fall of communism and the awakening of sexual desire, of figuring out how much inspiration is gleaned from mental distress over spiritual connection, of sitting and listening and knowing exactly when everyone will be shouting along. It was these conversation and experiences, often with people I was meeting for the first time, with endless people I see, far off and hazy, coming along in the distance, that has made this music important to me over the past decade of my life. I never found Jeff Mangum, I found everyone else."
When someone talks about Neutral Milk Hotel, they’re really talking about themselves.
“Baby for Pree” isn’t about the wonders of childbirth, it’s about moving from Tennessee to Denver. “Communist Daughter” isn’t about sex, it’s about a particularly bad experience with a youth group in Eastern Washington. And “Two Headed Boy, pt2” isn’t about Mangum, or Anne Frank, or a circus freak, no, it’s about my dad losing his job after 35 years. Neutral Milk Hotel is a band that’s written songs for everyone’s stories. I don’t believe this was intentional because something so magnificent is surely beyond intent.
It’s no surprise that, a few years ago, when Jeff Mangum announced a North American tour, everyone went absolutely bat-shit crazy. I bought tickets to a show in Knoxville, Tennessee and when my then-girlfriend bought tickets as well I refused to sit with her because my seats were better. The opening act resigned to their fate and simply introduced themselves as “not Neutral Milk Hotel.”
The next day I drove through the snowy Appalachian mountains with Luke to Asheville, North Carolina to see Mangum again. This time he was joined onstage by the original members of Neutral Milk Hotel. A girl in a wheelchair was in front of me in the crowd and in the middle of “Ghost” she instinctively held my hand. Everyone sang along to every song but got quiet at the parts that only Mangum could do justice. I saw a man with a face tattoo crying. It was easily one of the most surreal, connected, and loving experiences of my life.
It was 14 years after that roadtrip to Texas.
And still, years later, I spend long nights laying on the floor, staring at the ceiling, spinning In the Aeroplane Over the Sea on the shitty black turntable that I bought at Target, running through the infinite memories that project in my mind’s tiny skull-shaped theater, all set to music that’s strange and beautiful and hard to understand. But then, I’m not talking about Neutral Milk Hotel. I’m talking about myself.