If “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea” was an album of innocence fatally doomed, then it’s precursor, “On Avery Island,” depicted those first attempts at guarding and preserving it. Jeff Mangum, the masterful center player of Neutral Milk Hotel, struggles with similar themes in both albums—the celebration of birth, the mourning of early death or life lived in loneliness. Plagued with self-doubt, struggling to reconcile meaning and sometimes failing, Mangum’s journey is characterized by a longing for something pure that no longer exists, and may never have.
“On Avery Island” is loosely tied together by the story of the Pree sisters. Their hopes to welcome a child into the world are dashed early on, and each subsequent return paints a more desolate picture of their state. Like “Aeroplane,” which was sparked from the pages of Anne Frank’s diary, “On Avery Island’s” lyrics are so consistently poetic that it’s hard to include any one here in particular. The album’s climax at “April 8th” erupts into a 15 minute journey of harsh, expansive noise that Mangum intended as the sound one hears as they pass into the next life.
The arrangements that bring these lyrics to life are simple and beautiful. Fans of My Bloody Valentine and Sonic Youth will resonate with the fuzz-heavy bass and harsh analog synthesizers characteristic of the ‘90s. As with “Aeroplane,” however, Neutral Milk Hotel distinguishes its sound from contemporaries with an odd assortment of trumpets and flugelhorn, among other obscure sounds. The archaic sound and surreal lyrics evoke the feeling of a bizarre, fantastic world that died a thousand years ago. These soundscapes, however, feel incredibly habitable and human, as some of Mangum’s best songs have no words at all. The triumphant funeral march of “Fool” and “Marching Theme” exemplifies this strange juxtaposition, with a glorious lo-fi ensemble of synths and lurking, overblown guitars. It could just as likely take place at the front of a parade as it could on the edge of a cliff.
What a lot of Neutral Milk Hotel evokes is something apart from traditional considerations of feeling, which for this purpose seem too cynical. It’s something timeless, which perhaps explains their fervent cult following of the last 10 years, while they’ve been on hiatus. Mangum is willing and able to perform again, though, and he’s coming to Fox Theater this April. I highly recommend checking them out.