Neutral Milk Hotel: The Collected Works Of Neutral Milk Hotel [Box Set Review]

Neutral Milk Hotel
The Collected Works Of Neutral Milk Hotel
Merge Records [2023]

Neutral Milk Hotel made two modest lo-fi releases in the mid to late 90’s that over time proved far more influential as the band’s cult status grew in spite of singer/songwriter Jeff Mangum’s reclusive radio silence. Loosely described as psychedelic folk and indie rock, Mangum’s influence can be tracked to acts like Arcade Fire, The Decemberists, The Lumineers, and Bright Eyes, and the ongoing work of noise/pop bands like Low, that was formed in the same decade. In 2011, Mangum released these two albums together with recordings of nearly everything else he’d recorded as Neutral Milk Hotel, including EP’s, Ferris Wheel on Fire and Everything Is, extended singles, and a solo intimate concert recording, Live at Jittery Joe’s as a limited-edition box set, under the NMH moniker, in collaboration with his mother. Merge Records is making the exhaustive 54-track collection available for the first time as a digital release, as well as vinyl, with includes both a live and a studio demo version of the song “Little Birds.”

Born in Ruston, Louisiana, Mangum’s earliest efforts were DIY home cassette recordings inspired by the immediacy and dynamism of early punk rock, shared with Bill Doss, Will Cullen Hart, and Robert Schneider, who went on to form Apples in Stereo and worked as producer on Neutral Milk Hotel albums, a group loosely described as the Elephant 6 spreading out in time to Athens, Ga., and Denver, Colo. The core of Mangum’s songwriting is basic, sturdy chord progressions, often played energetically on an acoustic guitar, sometimes joined by a traditional bass and drums rhythm section, but often embellished by a horn section, a distorted banjo, an accordion, bagpipe or a singing saw (a traditional carpenter’s saw bent and bowed), or a variety of other joyful noisemakers.

Lyrically, Mangum’s imaginative lyrics seem to spring from his subconscious dreams and nightmares as stream of consciousness rants that address his troubled family upbringing, the influences of education, religion and other authorities, and the yearning for love, acceptance and understanding. Well-known rock critic Jim DeRogatis aptly captured Mangum’s no-holds-barred approach to personal expression as “Dr. Seuss illustrating William S. Burroughs, or perhaps Sigmund Freud collaborating on lyrics with Syd Barrett,” tying together the other-worldly visual imagery, sexual undertones, religious icons, and hints of playfulness and near-madness that shows up in tracks like “King of Carrot Flowers, Pts. 1, 2 and 3” and “Two Headed Boy.”

Responses to In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, Neutral Milk Hotel’s sophomore and final full-length release, were mixed when it came out in 1998. The writer at Pitchfork commented on the music as a “blend of Sgt. Pepper with early 90s lo-fi,” admitting that the melodies were “as catchy as it is frightening.” Still, the album was ranked by CMJ New Music Monthly as the number one album of the year, while the Village Voice’s annual Pazz and Jop poll of music critics placed it as number 15. Overtime, the album grew in reputation, no doubt when named as influential by numerous artists like those listed above and received a worthy reappraisal. Writing for The Rolling Stone Album Guide one writer described it as “timeless transcendent pop steeped in a century of American music, from funeral marches to punk rock… Aeroplane is a fragile, creaky, dignified, and ballsy record.”

Released two years earlier, On Avery Island, you can hear Mangum’s songwriting in transition from the DIY indie songwriter putting every thought that entered his head into a noisy cassette recording to something more accessible to a larger audience. There’s a lot more distortion and noise for the most part, notably at the end of  “Someone is Waiting,” in the instrumental “Marching Theme,” and the nearly 14 minute closing noise-fest “Pree-Sisters Swallowing a Donkey’s Eye,” with hints of a gamelan presence, an ancient traditional music from Indonesia played on percussive instruments. Tracks like “Where You’ll Find Me Now” and “Gardenhead/Leave Me Alone” no doubt touched on the loneliness experienced by adolescents everywhere, while “Naomi” captures the obsessive desire for Naomi Yang, of the band Galaxie 500, someone Magnum had never actually met at that point.

The eight tracks that come from the Ferris Wheel on Fire are unreleased songs that pre-dated his full-length releases, recorded by Mangum solo on acoustic guitar, performed without embellishments. Solid works like “Oh Sister” and “I Will Bury You in Time” are delivered with a sense of immediacy, and it includes a live performance of “My Dream Girl Don’t Exist,” a lyric filled with the many ways his desired soul mate might have met her too early demise before he ever met her… it’s the kind of song that would be hilarious if it weren’t so sad and ultimately distressing.

Everything Is and the song by that name from a 1994 7-inch vinyl single, extended to an EP with bits of interviews Mangum collected on his cassette recorder talking to people on the streets of Athens, Ga. While “Ruby Bulbs” is a distorted mess of a rant, “Here We Are (For W. Cullen Hart)” and “Unborn” are fine early examples of the artist’s songwriting as he as evolving toward a more public career. The rarity “Little Birds” is presented twice, a 1998 demo recording, and a live band version captured during a 2014 band reunion, and again it’s an example of Mangum’s songwriting at its most mature.

The final ten tracks here are from a casual solo performance at an Athens, Ga. coffee shop in front of twenty or so friends, including Mangum’s sometimes pitchy vocals, the occasional crying baby and the noise of a busy business. In the lose comfortable setting he shares that “I Would Bury You in Time” is about “me and a rock star in a hole by the beach… making out.” And how he wrote the “children’s song,” one of the most positive, up-tempo songs in his catalog, “Engine,” during a brief respite from his life “in the shitter.”

This monumental, exhaustive collection of the works of Neutral Milk Hotel will no doubt please those fans eager to absorb the entire recorded works of Jeff Mangum and company under this moniker, although he explored numerous sound collages and other solo projects as well. And perhaps, fans of those band’s who’ve been influenced by these seminal works will find their way to these recordings, some released for the first time as digital releases. Either way, it’s satisfying to have all of this curious, influential music in one accessible place.

“Little Birds (Live)” / “Two-Headed Boy” / “Gardenhead/Leave Me Alone”

The Olivia Tremor Control / Violent Femmes / The Decemberists

In The Aeroplane Over The Sea (1998)

Official Website | Bandcamp | Merge Records

Brian Q. Newcomb

Leave a Comment