Jeff Mangum – music’s J.D. Salinger


Slate has an interesting piece, that’s old news to music lovers, but is nonetheless about Neutral Milk Hotel mastermind Jeff Mangum. Mangum and his band recorded the now legendary album In the Aeroplane Over the Sea a proper decade ago. The album is revered by many (so much so that The ‘Gum refused to do a tribute album for it) and it’s noteriety stems as much from its genius as from Mangum walking away and never being heard from again.

It’s almost as if Jeff Mangum accomplished everything he wanted to with his musical homage to Anne Frank, or simply that he couldn’t figure out how to top himself and he’s suffered from writers block ever since. Anyway, the comparisons to author J.D. Salinger are apt, only that no one really understands why either walked away.

In one sense we all feel blessed to have glimpsed their genius and on the other we all feel a bit robbed. It’s a strange paradox.

Because he suffered from night terrors, Mangum often stayed up until dawn working on his songs, sometimes addressing them to the ghosts in a haunted closet. At first, this method produced modest results: His first album, On Avery Island (1996), showed flashes of promise but had its sludgy and spotty patches. One day, Mangum wandered into a bookstore and happened upon a copy of Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl. The book consumed him. After finishing it, he spent a few days crying over Frank’s story. As he told a Puncture magazine interviewer before Aeroplane‘s release, “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?” The songs and lyrics he started writing about Frank could be so nightmarish in vision that Mangum grew afraid of what was issuing from his brain: verses about “pianos filled with flames” and eating “tomatoes and radio wires.” At times, he seems possessed, singing on Aeroplane‘s title track, “Anna’s ghost all around/ Hear her voice as it’s rolling and ringing through me.”

In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is so expansive in its weirdness that one of its 11 songs is a rollicking bagpipe jam?yet it would be wrong to call it a “cult” record, since that would imply it’s some sort of flawed art-school project. Sure, Aeroplane occasionally sounds like a mariachi circus fed through a broken amplifier, but it all weaves together as Mangum guides the proceedings with percussive guitar strumming, singalong melodies, and his booming, emotive voice. The album plays like a document from a parallel-universe version of the 1940s, inlaid with Mangum’s haunting lyrics: “And here’s where your mother sleeps/ And here is the room where your brothers were born/ Indentions in the sheets/ Where their bodies once moved but don’t move anymore.” Aeroplane isn’t about airtight instrumentation or tricky songwriting?most of the songs have just three or four chords?but about a remarkable range of feeling put into melody. (Mangum recorded his part of the song “Oh Comely” in one scratch take, at the end of which you can hear a stunned band member yell “Holy shit!” in the background.)

The praise and hype and kisses (though Dodge’s article was back in 06 still has some great Mp3s) it received this past month were certainly worth it. In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is a monumental work. [Buy]

Mp3: “King of Carrot Flowers: Part 1”
Mp3: “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea”

Damn. Just because we love this album. Here’s another clip of Jeff playing several songs off the record solo.

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