NEUTRAL MILK HOTEL
The Collected Works of Neutral Milk Hotel
If I cast my mind back to 1989 I remember that last summer of childhood, a season of sun-stained adventures before the seriousness of life creeping in at the corners pivoted me on the path toward growing up. Unaware that whilst my inner Max was preparing to leave the wild things behind, there was something remarkable emerging an ocean away in Ruston, Louisiana.
A steady stream of music, recorded at home and swapped between friends and classmates would eventually lead Jeff Mangum, Robert Schneider, Bill Doss, and Will Cullen Hart to form the musical collective Elephant 6, and more importantly in this instance saw the inception of Mangum’s initially solo project, Neutral Milk Hotel.
Jeff Mangum is, in short, an enigma. Beyond his musical works, he’s managed to maintain relative anonymity which few others have achieved. If the internet is to be believed he dropped out of college and lived as a vagabond moving between cities, performing in bands and occasionally making solo recordings during the years leading up to the release of 'Everything Is' in 1993. The following five years saw the release of his debut 'On Avery Island' an experimental lo-fi psychedelic folk album. The kind that’s not for everyone as it veers between warm melodies that you can lose yourself in and manic distorted soundscapes that leave you a little bewildered.
Growing into a full band, Neutral Milk Hotel released their follow-up album. 'In the Aeroplane Over the Sea' is a more self-assured cohesive sounding album that is both revered and reviled. It's an album that exists outside of time, drawing on moments in history and imagery that are part of, if not popular culture - mass consciousness. Shared human experiences spilling out lyrically against a backdrop of noise that manages to capture both the wonder of self-discovery and the visceral recoil from the darker aspects of humanity.
By the end of 1998, Neutral Milk Hotel had gone on hiatus, no official reason was ever given - though the negative impact of fame and live performances on Mangum’s mental health coupled with his desire to disappear from the public eye are justification enough. Neutral Milk Hotel, could have faded into obscurity in the years that followed, a well kept secret passed between the right kind of friends or slipping down to the next generation as they rifle through their parents music collection. Instead, they acquired a wider cult following, which grows in perpetuity, such I suspect is the power of the internet. In an age where we can connect with like-minded people across most of the world, it’s become far easier to share music and experiences with others. That we can make these recommendations and speak candidly of the impact an album has had on us from behind a veil removes the risk of feeling judged that we encounter face to face. It’s in these spaces that Neutral Milk Hotel found fresh ears to connect with, the mystery that surrounded them carved out a niche that doesn’t seem to be going away anytime soon.
Mangum returned to performing in 2008, though aside from reissues of both albums, an extremely limited edition boxed set released in 2011 it wasn’t until 2013 that a full band reunion tour was announced, their last for the foreseeable future before going on an extended hiatus as a “goodbye for the neverending now” those live shows for those lucky enough to get tickets were spellbinding, intensely emotional evenings. That connection between music and your own emotional response amplified by the fullness of the live performance was overwhelming and remains as hard to put into words as it is to offer an explanation as to why you love this band who play saws and sing about Anne Frank.
February 2023 sees the reissue of the 2011 boxed set getting a wide release, including 'Live at Jittery Joes'. For existing fans, it’s an opportunity to explore Neutral Milk Hotel at length. 'The Collected Works of Neutral Milk Hotel' completes the jigsaw you didn’t know was missing any pieces. For the uninitiated, it offers a moment of discovery. This is music that isn’t quite of this world and you’ll need to share it with others whenever or wherever you can.