The smell of gasoline or fresh horse manure, the burned edges of pooled chicken grease on a hot sheet pan, cystic acne popping videos, James Gandolfini, old cemeteries, algae covered ponds, amateur gangbang porn: some of my favorite things are not commonly meant to be loved or found desirable. I’ve seen homely babies being loved by their mothers. I know a man who is enamored of spiders. Many people enjoy Kombucha. There is room in this world for all kinds of adoration.
Neutral Milk Hotel is a band fronted by singer/songwriter Jeff Mangum. It was popular in the late 80’s. I discovered them twenty years later.
One definition of discord is “and inharmonious combination of musical tones sounded together.” Another definition could very well be, “the music of Neutral Milk Hotel.”
By all accounts, nobody should enjoy this music. But this statement is untrue because I believe everyone should enjoy this music. Their best-known album, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, is an endless collapse of shelving inside a junk store on top of a variety of animals who then commence an agonizing death and it is one of the most beautiful albums I’ve ever heard.
When I found Aeroplane, I literally listened to nothing else for a span of five months, much to the dismay of my family. One of my children — a young teenager at the time — told me it sounded like dolphins dying. I couldn’t argue.
I listened anyway.
There are eleven tracks on this album; all of them beautifully ugly. King of Carrot Flowers Part One is one of the more palatable scores but its follow up; King of Carrot Flowers Parts Two and Three (one song) is completely insane; starting out with a plaintive, prayer-like pleading wail and then devolving into a shouting, cacophonous, relentless punk thunder. But yet, lovely in its raging. The other twinned songs on the album are Two-Headed Boy and Two-Headed Boy Part Two; both songs dreamy, visceral, poetic renderings. The first gives us a rushed guitar and the worst singing I’ve ever fell in love with. It has a fast pacing that ends quiet, finishing with a melodious chanting. The second starts with an accordion or perhaps a singing saw, or zanzithophone or a banjo played with not a pick but a bow. (There are a number of these irregular instruments used on this album, so it’s hard to tell.) The rise and fall of that warping tone leads into a more relaxed opposite from its predecessor; a steady, lovely-melodic love song heavy with pleading, heavy with some of the most beautiful lyrics I’ve ever heard.
“Blister please with those wings in your spine
Love to be with a brother of mine
How he’d love to find your tongue in his teeth
In a struggle to find secret songs that you keep wrapped in boxes so tight
Sounding only at night as you sleep
And in my dreams you’re alive and you’re crying,
As your mouth moves in mine, soft and sweet,
Rings of flowers ‘round your eyes
And I’ll love you for the rest of your life when you’re ready”
On paper, the words are exquisite, delicate and odd. Adding the wreckage of Jeff’s voice singing those words to the music, and you have your ugly. Put them together and you have an uncommon beauty that awes.
When I fall in love with a thing, I fall hard. I fall completely. I am buried with this love blinded to any flaws, or any disgust. My heart is a triumphant thing in this love, face to the sun, arms thrown back, eyes closed, smiling. When I love an ugly thing, I don’t see what others perceive as ugly, I see what my heart sees.
Hear what it hears.
My favorite song on Aeroplane is Oh Comely, an eight-minute, eighteen-second dirge that falls into the latter half of the album. Jeff Mangum apparently recorded it in one take, which — given the length, the emotional dredging and the chant-like delivery — I find to be pretty amazing. (It seems a band member was also impressed enough to yell “oh shit” at the end of this feat, which you can hear at the very end of the track.)
Oh Comely is quieter than the other songs on the album which forces Jeff’s wailing, creak of a voice to the forefront, almost to where the plodding monotony of the guitar that strums behind it becomes forgotten. The song is hypnotic; Jeff’s voice doing all of the heavy lifting over a very simple guitar riff throughout most of the song, joined only towards the end by some horns and layering vocals. He takes his voice up step by step to hit notes nobody would ever want him to, but when he does, it’s glorious. American Idol would make him a viral laughing stock. But it’s his shrieking that is my favorite part. It’s what works. It’s what it should be. It’s what makes it true.
What is truth in art? Who does it belong to?
What gets to be considered beautiful? Who decides?
Jeff Magnum wrote much of this album about Anne Frank, the teenage girl that died in a Nazi concentration camp. The surrealist tones of his words coupled with this subject matter lend themselves to the poetically rancid texture of this album.
The Holocaust was legitimately, inarguably ugly. Some of my favorite horror films are set amongst idyllic environments.
There is a beauty in blunt contrasts.
I feel sorry if you cannot see it or hear it.