22 November, 2011

Point/Counterpoint, Part II: Neutral Milk Hotel, *In the Aeroplane Over the Sea*

For the Defense: Daddy Charlie Jazz Hands

Should it please the members of the court, may I submit that my introduction to this record was by way of laundry day, when I had to interact with my terminally alcoholic hipster roommate as the basement was his domain and that's where I had to pass by him to get to the washer and dryer? He was the kind of guy who recoiled at the mention of metal and I can't recall ever having a legitimate conversation with him regarding music. I know he liked Radiohead to the point that he got Thom Yorke's solo record. He liked Dosh. He liked Do Make Say Think. That was the stuff he was into.
And me? I was his punker roommate, just as drunk as him, but far louder; I was the guy with the girlfriend who would not just shut up and the big amplifier stack that looked like something from a Kubrik sci-fi. Of course I was louder.
And it's one laundry day that I pass by him and hear what he's listening to and ask him, What is that?
"What?"
What're you listening to?
"Oh. It's Neutral Milk Hotel?"
Right on. What record is that?
"In the Aeroplane Over the Sea?" (Seriously, he sometimes answered questions with statements presented as questions.)
So, I went about hunting the record down, got it, loaded it into iTunes, and let her rip.
"King of Carrot Flowers Pt 1" started off unassuming enough until the second stanza where the mother stabs the father with a fork, the father howls in pain and starts throwing shit all over the place, and two children, presumably step siblings - inferred from the familiar addresses of "daddy" and "dad", though "your mom" indicates that this is not the narrator's mother - engage in mutual masturbation.
You followed all of that, right? The second half of the first verse has the mother attacking the father with a goddamned kitchen utensil while Greg and Marsha Brady are upstairs giving each other handies. That's fucked up and, in my book, fucked up is AOK.
And as the song keeps going, the narrator maintains the semi-incestual theme, noting that the narrator has fallen in legitimate love with his step sibling while his step mother falls further into the bottle and the father just thinks about offing himself all the time.
And right after that? The loud, long, "I love you, Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ, I love you, yes, I do."
Now considering the Anne Frank references on this record and that Anne Frank will forever be tied to / symbolized by her faith (there will never be known to the world the Anne Frank the Narcoleptic, the Anne Frank the Boy Crazy, the Anne Frank the Mathematician, or the Anne Frank the Clog Dancer, no, she will always be the Anne Frank the Jew), one can extrapolate that perhaps the Jesus Christ in this instance is the Jesus Christ of Christian antiquity since we're dealing with religious elements elsewhere on this record but in that context, one can very easily over look the possibility that the narrator isn't proclaiming love for Jesus but instead, he's taking the lord's name in vain to pronounce his love to his step-sibling.
Try it with something you love, be it a girlfriend, your cat, hell, watch this: I love Cheez-Its, Jesus Christ! Jesus Christ, I love Cheez-Its, yes, I do! See?
And let's not pretend that Mangum wasn't smart enough to slip it in there like that, to create an ambiguity as to the real reason behind the presence of that name.
And as the record winds on, things become more twisted. Our narrator - and it's never clear if it's the same narrator on every song - presents us with a menagerie of death and secrets and fire and ash and ghosts and flowers and body parts and virginity and flight - these themes are revisited over and over on the record, making it one hell of a brooding, moody aural tome. The record becomes abysmally dark to the point where one can not help but think that this is, thematically, anyhow, (I'm going to say it) a goth record.
Fuck you. I said it. It's a goth record.
Now, I understand that genres are defined more (and often strictly) by style, instrumentation, and blah blah blah than by lyrical content but you know you're talking to the guy that once claimed that roughly half of Mellow Gold was a goth record. Or maybe it was just "Whiskeyclone, Hotel City 1997" as a goth song. I can't remember, that was back before SD&A was even a twinkle in my eye. In fact, I think it may have been during one of my first attempts at blogging, somewhere in the neighborhood of 2005? Maybe even 2004. Doubtful that long ago, though.
Where were we?
Right, we were discussing how dark, positively twisted this record is. And sure, I'll concede that every girl with an acoustic guitar and a YouTube account who covers "Two-Headed Boy" can ruin that song but that's only because there's no context surrounding it. You didn't have to work through three songs previous to this to get why this song, while as (I'm going to say the word again) dark as it is lyrically, is a welcome respite from the visions posited forth in the earlier three songs with joyful / hopeful melodies over a driving three-four time.
This is also the song where we meet what is possibly our second (and again unidentified) narrator, the one in love with the two-headed boy in question, as eager as the previous narrator to take off clothes and touch all over, but now there is no mention of parents or death - the elements of the previous three songs - and there is that dag-blasted joyful / hopeful vocal I mentioned a sentence earlier.
"Holland, 1945"? I got nothing there. It's seriously the only song I can hear and tear up a little every time I hear it. Not the most objective statement ever, what can I tell you?
But where the record fails? I'm going to side with the Prosecution on half of their assessment of "Oh, Comely", specifically the half where it's noted that the damned thing takes too long. And how many times does our narrator hit that high melody? It makes an impact on the first go around and after that it's just a bit too much to handle. Where elsewhere on the record, there was restraint - yes, the instrumental interlude, the extra instrumentation, the big blaring brass section, the fuzz box on the acoustic guitar, and, yes, the up front vocal were all done with some restraint - this song somehow turns up the pretension and the bloat, thus negating all the beautiful sentiments our narrator is trying to make.
It's a song that, if I were given free reign over the master tapes and a box of razor blades, could be easily sliced down to maybe five minutes instead of eight. And then it would still need trimming.
Jeff Mangum, our man behind the narrator(s) sings this song almost as if he's improvising the lyrics with only the "high" part - as close to a chorus as this song has - as the one solid lyrical element of the song. And if he is improvising, it sounds like he was off his game that day - "or something like", "some kind of", and "something"s pop up through out the lyrics. And then some of the really sharp, clever bits are brought down by either this sort of wishy-washy indecisiveness or by employing out-of-place imagery that makes it sound like Mangum was trying to cram in every last element he could think of.
After all, it's the eight minute epic ballad here. It's the centerpiece of the record. It has to be all-encompassing, right?
And then there's "Ghost" and "Untitled". Let's be honest with ourselves and others: Titling a song "Untitled" is a bullshit move that bullshit bands pull, I expect more from Neutral Milk Hotel. Secondly, let's call it what it really is: Just the long, drawn out, jam ending to "Ghost". There's nothing wrong with that. That can be done.
The record, as a whole leaves on that (saying it again) joyful / hopeful note, even as it seems that the narrator is dying and his family is dead. "God is a place you will wait for the rest of your life," he says, before turning and addressing the Two-Headed Boy.
And most of the lyrics, really, don't tell a linear story so much as they paint parts of pictures. They're torn scraps of canvases and the listener has to arrange them to figure out what the hell is going on. Is it about Anne Frank? Is it about coming of age? Is it about the supernatural or the spiritual or the afterlife? Is the two-headed boy literally two-headed? Does his sister literally have wings? Has Mangum authored a fantasy novel or a children's book in the form of a record? Or is he just playing with imagery in the same way Cobain did with "Smells Like Teen Spirit" which is a song about - admit it - nothing (read the lyrics and tell me what that song is about without going "um, like" a dozen times; it's about nothing).
And perhaps that's what's so likable about this record is that half the experience in listening to it is trying to figure it all out. And with that comes knowing that once you've figured it out, it's no fun anymore. Sounds applicable to a lot of things, really.

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