Americana is described as the “amalgam of American music formed by the confluence of the shared and varied traditions”. You might therefore think it inappropriate when producing an article entitled Americana A-Z, to write about Neutral Milk Hotel, who are variously described as indie rock, psychedelic folk, lo-fi or fuzz-folk.
Neutral Milk Hotel began as a recording project for Jeff Mangum. He was a co-founder of Elephant Six, a loose collective of musicians best defined by their passion for home recording. The first release under the name Neutral Milk Hotel was the ‘Everything Is’ EP in 1994. It is an exercise in lo-fi fuzz experimentation with loops and samples. This is territory for those determined to go through all of Jeff Mangum’s recording history. It has hints regarding the future direction, but it would not stand out in crowd of similar endeavours.
‘On Avery Island’ was their debut LP in 1996 and it has the hallmarks that are now recognised as being characteristic of Neutral Milk Hotel. The fuzz sound has become altogether more melodic and is interspersed with more accessible songs comprising guitar and vocals. The most significant transition is the introduction of pipes, trombones and other acoustic instrumentation in the recording process. It was reasonably successful with positive reviews and it acts as the precursor, without which their next album would not be possible.
‘In The Aeroplane Over The Sea’ was released in 1998. The album shifted about 7,000 units at the time which was consistent with their previous work and it garnered some critical reviews along with equal amounts of criticism. In particular the lyrical content saw Jeff described as a “sick and demented fellow” with the album being described as “thin-blooded, woolgathering stuff” by Rolling Stone.
Within the largely impenetrable and deeply personal lyrics, Jeff attempts amongst other things to externalise a dream about Anne Frank. The lyrics remain enigmatic at best, with the subject matter being generally considered to cover the philosophical notion of a lovers desire to merge with the object of their love. It is this theme that broadly ties the apparently disparate elements of the album together into a single entity. Overall the album communicates a raw and visceral emotional intensity that is rarely captured.
Subsequent revisionism has been much kinder than the initial reception and the album has undergone critical reappraisal. It is now regarded as “timeless transcendentalist pop steeped in a century of American music” and “a stunning piece of art that draws you deeper with each listen”. Internet mythology has undoubtedly played its part in the ongoing recognition for this album. It is reported to be still selling 25,000 copies a year and is now widely regarded as one of the best albums of the nineties.
‘In The Aeroplane Over The Sea’ is likely to remain Jeff’s magnum opus. The resultant exposure and touring had a negative effect on his mental health, the group was disbanded and despite a brief return to live performances with the same lineup, it is unlikely any further work will be released as Neutral Milk Hotel. In interview Jeff said “I just feel like these windows open up for something to be honest, and they don’t stay open for very long. I guess my path feels sort of different now“.
This album remains an enigmatic combination of fantastical and emotional memories and associations that is clearly not to the taste of some, but it inspires a cult-like following in many to this day. Although you would find it difficult to argue that Neutral Milk Hotel sit centrally within Americana, to suggest their artistic contribution did not play any part in the expansion of the genre to become the broad church that it is today would be to underestimate their influence.
The Career: Two EP’s, two studio albums.
Key Release: ‘In The Aeroplane Over The Sea’