Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for February 23rd, 2018

The neutral planet

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Every once in a while, I’ll read a work of criticism and come across a line that might have been taken directly from my own head. I felt this once while reading Kim Hunter’s little book about Neutral Milk Hotel’s album In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, which was released by Merge Records twenty years ago this month. In a brief discussion of its closing song, “Two-Headed Boy Pt. Two,” Hunter writes:

There’s a weary quality to Jeff [Mangum]’s vocal on this closing song that makes the tender sentiments especially moving. Even with the lyrics changed to mask Anne Frank’s presence, there really is no lovelier moment in pop than when he sings “and in my dreams you’re alive and you’re crying.”

This might seem like an absurdly overwrought statement, particularly for an album that had been released just seven years before Hunter wrote these words. But I believe it. “Two-Headed Boy Pt. Two” is simply the most moving song that I know, and that line is the moment in which it all comes together for me. I’ve always found it quietly miraculous that someone else once felt the same way and bothered to write that fact down. But I suspect that there are a lot of listeners out there who probably agree, and who think that they’re equally on their own.

In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is an album that encourages such responses. Two decades later, it hangs in there, selling tens of thousands of copies a year, many on vinyl, and yet everyone who hears it feels as if they’ve found something secret. When I first got it—I don’t remember how or why—I was in my early twenties, and it had probably been out for about five years, which was long enough back then to make it seem as if it had been around forever. (These days, half a decade can pass in the blink of an eye, and I’m amused to realize that more time separates us from, say, the release of Moonrise Kingdom than it took me to catch up with Mangum’s work.) It’s been running in my head in one form or another ever since, but it still occupies an odd position in my listening life. I don’t know if I’d feel comfortable ranking it as one of my favorites. It doesn’t really connect or lead to anything else. I didn’t become a fan of lo-fi music or sound collage, and I don’t even think I could identify half of its songs by name, although I did briefly learn the chords to “Two-Headed Boy Pt. Two” so that I could play it on the ukulele. To be honest, I’ve never bothered to check out On Avery Island, Mangum’s only other album, which would have been the obvious next step. It simply exists in a remote corner of my mind as something messy, opaque, but somehow perfect, and it didn’t change me nearly as much as it should have. As I wrote in a blog post a few years ago: “Like everyone else, I’ll often hear a song on the radio or on old playlist, like ‘Two-Headed Boy Pt. Two’ by Neutral Milk Hotel, that reminds me of a period in my life I’ve neglected, or a whole continent of emotional space that I’ve failed to properly navigate.”

I’ve also realized that I don’t fully understand what the album is about, to the extent that this is a meaningful question. While looking up those lines from Kim Hunter’s book, I read the rest of the paragraph for the first time in years, and I’ll admit that I was a little bewildered: “The dead brother reels through, his head burning, his skull broken by what might be a suicidal bullet, as the living who love him seek to undo the destruction and put him back together.” This isn’t what I picture when I hear the song, but I’m sure that it’s technically correct, even if piecing together a narrative out of Mangum’s fragments leads to something that is much less than the sum of its parts. In an early interview with Mike McGonigal of Puncture, given just before the album came out, Mangum offered as much information about his creative process as we’re ever likely to hear:

The songs sort of come out spontaneously and it’ll take me awhile to figure out what exactly is happening lyrically, what kind of story I’m telling. Then I start building little bridges—word bridges—to make everything go from one point to the next point to the next point until it reaches the end. A continuous stream of words keeps coming out like little blobs, usually in some sort of order. They come at me at random and I have to piece them together…Like with “Two-Headed Boy,” each section sort of came out at different times, so many that I’ve forgotten most of them by now.

That sounds about right. In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is one of our great works of narrative ambiguity, at least if we define it, as I once did, as a network of specifics with one crucial piece removed—like the face of the woman on the cover. And there’s no question in my mind that Mangum has something achingly particular in mind for every line that he sings. Much of the album was famously inspired by The Diary of Anne Frank, which simply moved Mangum in the way that it should move all of us. His interview with Puncture contains what still strikes me as an extraordinary confession:

I was walking around wondering, “If I knew the history of the world, would everything make more sense to me or would I just lose my mind?” And I came to the conclusion that I’d probably just lose my mind. The next day I went into a bookstore and walked to the wall in the back, and there was The Diary of Anne Frank. I’d never given it any thought in my entire life. I spent two days reading it and then completely flipped out…And I would go to bed every night and have dreams about having a time machine and somehow I’d have the ability to move through time and space freely, and save Anne Frank. Do you think that’s embarrassing?

It shouldn’t be. Yet Mangum seems to have sensed that he said too much, because he hasn’t said much of anything since. “Don’t hate her when she gets up to leave,” Mangum sings on the very last line of the album, and then he puts down the guitar and walks away.

Written by nevalalee

February 23, 2018 at 8:51 am

Quote of the Day

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[Fred Astaire] is transcendent. When he dances a question proposes itself: what if a body moved like this through the world? But it is only a rhetorical, fantastical question, for no bodies move like Astaire, no, we only move like him in our dreams…He is “poetry in motion.” His movements are so removed from ours that he sets a limit on our own ambitions. Nobody hopes or expects to dances like Astaire, just as nobody really expects to write like Nabokov.

Zadie Smith, “Dance Lessons for Writers”

Written by nevalalee

February 23, 2018 at 7:30 am

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