(Also: April 8th (Demo), Bucket, Engine (Live on XFM Radio Session), I Love You on a Tuesday (Live) [a.k.a. Tuesday Moon (Live)], Little Birds (Live), Sweet Marie)
As summer turned to autumn in 1997, Neutral Milk Hotel was busy recording what would become its opus and, to date, its swansong – the powerful and often downright devastating In the Aeroplane Over the Sea.
In 11 magical tracks, the record turned singer/songwriter Jeff Mangum into a cult icon and took the lo-fi songcraft and stream-of-conscious narratives of On Avery Island, Everything Is and countless cassette-only releases to an entirely new plateau. The record became, rightly, one of the most critically acclaimed of the decade.
But, in the years since In the Aeroplane Over the Sea was released, new releases from Mangum (who’s increasingly been characterized as a kind of heir apparent to Syd Barrett) have been sporadic – a live solo disc here, a compilation of field recordings there – and nothing has matched the majesty of Neutral Milk Hotel’s last full-length.
Leave it to fans and bootleggers, though, to pick up where Aeroplane left off, providing new chapters in the Mangum songbook by mining previous releases, tracking down obscure compilations, and uploading and sharing Neutral Milk Hotel’s plethora of demos and unreleased material.
Some of these offerings, posted to fan sites and label hubs and message boards, are rusty or somewhat incomplete or pale in comparison to their commercially available brethren, but that’s part of what makes them so damned fascinating. They remove the walls, though already thin, between Mangum and his listeners, inviting us further inside to witness the songwriting and artistic process.
We become not distant consumers but eavesdroppers and neighbors.
This may be no clearer than on a track like the touching “Little Birds,” an alarmingly engaging acoustic confessional/ballad Mangum wrote and performed after Aeroplane was released.
The six-minute track – in a live version available for download at the link above – features a direct and lengthy introduction/explanation from Mangum, lyrics that mesh symbol-laden dream images with confrontational directives (“Little bird, little bird / Come into my body;” “Put your hands within me and you’ll know what I’m feeling;” “I think this is how I would like to reveal / my body and start again”) and an emotional delivery right off Aeroplane.
Mangum’s barely amplified guitar keeps the pace – occasionally a trembling shuffle and occasionally a clutter of glassy notes – as his voice wavers and moans, the emotions pulled from words as he extends syllables or draws one meter of verse right into the next. The same observations could be made of a solo acoustic performance of “Engine” recorded during a May 1998 XFM radio session.
But while Mangum’s performance on the track might echo the quieter moments of Aeroplane, the “children’s song,” as he called it, has a casual off-handedness about it, the emotion and darker depths of some of Neutral Milk Hotel’s song-stories crossed with the delivery of a fable.
The growing online selection of Neutral Milk Hotel offerings also includes variations on released material that makes the listener reconsider their first impressions of the work. Take an undated/circa 1993 four-track demo of “April 8th,” the somber acoustic-fuzz dirge from On Avery Island. In the version, what seizes the listener’s ear isn’t the repeated patterns of slowly picked acoustic guitar or the fuzzy throbbing of distortion, it’s a spare, toned-down blues-guitar lead-in, the occasional interjection of an organ and, above all else, Mangum’s plainly (and softly) spoken lyrics. “Crawl across toward your window / I’m calling softly from the street / I’m just a lonely widow half-awake and stranded on my feet,” Mangum sings. “I’m of age but have no children / No quarter phone-booth calls to home / Just late-night television inside my bedroom all alone.” It’s not that the song’s lyrics weren’t affecting on On Avery Island, it’s just that the naked and stripped-down presentation of the demo places them right in the spotlight, where listeners are forced to consider their meanings and the heartache and longing apparent in Mangum’s delivery. (“There is no use in waiting,” he intones at one point. “Offer up your steps so I can climb.”)
But what would a little MP3 crawling be without a rarity or two or 20? When it comes to Mangum’s work, there’s more that can be documented – from the playful, borderline-Beatlesque refrains of the demo “Sweet Marie” and the nearly anthemic acoustic-rock hybrid “Bucket” (from the 1992 cassette release Beauty) to the fist-pumping, MC5-tinged rocker “I Love You on a Tuesday” and the free-form jazz-circus experimentation and spoken-word free-associations of “All the Colors of the Rainbow,” recorded in New York on April 25, 1997.
Viewed independently, they’re fascinating museum pieces and historical footnotes. Taken together, they’re nearly enough to start matching the scope and vitality of Neutral Milk Hotel’s past full-lengths, reminders of just why so many of us fell in love with the group (and with Mangum specifically) years ago. With a multi-disc collection of asides and unreleased recordings reportedly in the works, that’s now more than a reminder. It’s a transition into another chapter.