21 November, 2011

Point/Counterpoint, Part I: Neutral Milk Hotel, "In The Aeroplane Over The Sea"

For the Prosecution: M. Martin

When I was in a joke band about two years ago, I had an idea for a song that was, essentially, a mean little cheap shot at Neutral Milk Hotel set to the tune of their song "In The Aeroplane Over The Sea." The song (or the one verse of it I completed) decried Neutral Milk Hotel's lasting influence, embarrassing lyrics and standardized songwriting in the most blatantly snotty terms possible. It was more than a little sophomoric, but the point still stands. I've never understood how this album became so worshiped - indeed, nearly deified - amongst many people my age. I knew at least a few people who quoted lyrics from this album for their high school yearbook pages, and NMH-loving musicians in Pitchfork articles and NMH fans on Tumblrs have both said things along the lines of "If you don't like this album, you have no soul."

Color me soulless. This album is lionized beyond all reason, for little reason.

The music reviewing website Nude as the News has this to say on the matter: "As of this writing, Mangum and NMH have yet to follow up Aeroplane, releasing only a collection of solo live recordings by Mangum. This is understandable, as the album may never find its equal in the realm of modern music."

Such manic hyperbole would be enough to make anyone's hackles rise.

The problem with Aeroplane is that it's just got too much baggage, even without all the ridiculous indie-rock J.D. Salinger myth-making that surrounds Jeff Mangum. (There are times when I feel the status of Aeroplane has been pushed upon him more than anyone else.) It's overkill. What haven't we got here? To start with (because it's the first thing you'll notice) there are Mangum's desperately drawn-out, wavering, pained and extremely loud sung vocals. It literally sounds like Mangum doesn't know that a microphone provides the service of amplifying a person's voice. There are also dense, wildly surreal and self-indulgent lyrics, unified by a vague concept about mortality as symbolized by Anne Frank, that go on at extravagant length about wonderfully cheery subjects like the Holocaust, the awkwardness of teenage sex and - at very worst - the mixing of the two subjects in Mangum's professed symbolic desire for Anne Frank. I've always felt this conceptual conflating of the two subjects was remarkably tasteless. There's also a ton of bizarre instrumentation piled on throughout the album that often feels somewhat unnecessary: horns, accordions, elbow pipes, singing saws, etc. This album's influence alone is responsible for the prevalence of high school horns in certain strains of overwrought indie-rock - the Arcade Fire, call your office.

While this album takes tons of chances with the arrangements and the lyrics, the songs themselves are unimaginative, major-chord singer-songwriter fare, for the most part. The structures are verse-chorus-verse or verse-verse-verse reliable and feel very same-old same-old. And, granted, it's a little hypocritical for me to critique Aeroplane for using familiar chord progressions when I'm a punk rock fanatic, but therein lies the difference: a band can use the most clichéd chord sequence in the world - let's say, E5 G5 A5 G5, again and again, ad nauseum - and turn it into pure gold if they put enough passion and style into it, and actually have something to say over it. The greatest music can revitalize and invigorate the most tired melodies.

When I listen to music, I want it to compel me. Music has to make me feel something besides boredom and dull depression. Some of my favorite music has literally not let me go until I sat down, stopped everything and listened carefully to it - even if I initially thought it was horrible. And this doesn't feel very compelling. It feels overworked, mannered, and trimmed in all the superficially correct places. I get the feeling that Jeff Mangum, Robert Schneider, Scott Spillane and Co. were shooting for a masterpiece with this album, and the best way to get a masterpiece is to not go for one, especially if your definition of "masterpiece" is "warmed-over, yowling folk with limp, vaguely psychedelic arrangements." Sometimes I feel like this album got a nasty case of Sgt. Pepperitis thirty years too late.

A lot of Aeroplane depends on Jeff Mangum's vocal performance and how riveting you find it. The man sings like he's on trial for his life throughout, but his trial and travail never grabs me. It irritates me instead. I don't understand what he's talking about half the time, and I don't want to understand what he's talking about the other half of the time. It's as if Mangum expects his suffocatingly symbolic verbal screeds to encapsulate everything in the world. I doubt this was actually the case, of course, but that's how it comes off, and it's extremely distracting. It often feels like Mangum is pushing his sensitivities and feelings on the listener instead of letting them empathize naturally, which might not mean that he's so sensitive after all. How sensitive can you be if you're making someone else feel bad for you?

I guess this is the whole question of pop music, though: Isn't every artist, at some level, manipulating the listener into feeling something - into making them feel something besides boredom and dull depression? And does that all depend on what you're making them feel? Do Lady Gaga's fans feel anything at all when they listen to her music? Do the Black Eyed Peas' fans feel anything? Is it all just distraction in a world that is increasingly based upon technological distraction and narcissism as a way of life, as a means of deflecting feelings that go deeper than the surface? Or does their music and its acceptance and endorsement by so many people mean that their music speaks for how people feel? (Which, in those cases, would mean most people feel best when they feel absolutely nothing.) Or does it all just lead to the easy criticism that people have had really bad taste during every period of history? Does Aeroplane's relative mass endorsement amongst white, middle-class, superficially sensitive young people lead to a place other than white, middle-class solipsism? All I know is that Aeroplane means a whole lot to a large number of people, and I can only hear the flaws of my generation within it.

In The Aeroplane Over The Sea is no definitive statement about anything. It isn't even a solid listen all the way through. After all of this, I will say there are some good songs here: "The King of Carrot Flowers, Pt. One" is a nice, melodic, folksy opener, and "Holland, 1945" and the untitled instrumental are great fuzzed-out rock songs. "Two-Headed Boy, Pt. Two" is probably the one song on here that is genuinely moving, and "Communist Daughter" is a beautiful low-key ballad with interesting use of subtly shifting white noise.

But the eight-minute solo dirge "Oh Comely," even though it features an original and interesting combination of major-key guitar chords and minor-key vocal melody, is basically a bloated, draggy, overlong rewrite of "Three Peaches" from On Avery Island, their first album. "Two-Headed Boy, Pt. One" leaves you with nowhere to hide from worked-to-death chord progressions and Mangum's overbearing oversinging, and "The King of Carrot Flowers, Pts. Two and Three," "Ghost" and the insufferable title track suffer from the same problems. It all adds up to an impenetrable wall of self-expression, self-conscious instrumentation and wailing vocals, and it does nothing but reduce oxygen in whatever space I'm in. I am an unwilling participant in this man's exorcism.

I'm sure that part of my problem with the album stems from having to endure it played loud in snooty art classes at 9:00 in the morning during a terrible period of my life. I remember that the classmate who loved Neutral Milk Hotel best told me repeatedly that I would fail the class, and I did. I did not feel accepted at all in that environment, and it may just come down to that: every time I listen to In The Aeroplane Over The Sea, I know I'm an outsider.

Someone should have told Mangum that it's generally a bad idea to go for the Universalist Jugular, especially when no one shares a universal opinion about anything.

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