January 25, 2013 by Johnathan Guest
To many great artists, the reward of success comes with the heavy burden of fame. Every new fan, new record sold and new piece of media exposure adds to the pressure and scrutiny. If an artist gets popular enough, it seems as though they never get a moment to themselves. Some may think it would be easy and fun to be idolized and instantly recognized on the street for one’s work, and while there are certainly perks to that fame, it can take a serious mental and physical toll, which is virtually impossible to avoid after an artist reaches the top.
Of course, there are those artists who can handle the glare and maybe even relish it, but there are just as many who find themselves disgusted by fame as soon as they get a taste. Jeff Mangum, the main creative force behind the ’90s indie rock band Neutral Milk Hotel, is part of the latter group. He effectively disbanded the group because it was thrust to the forefront of indie rock so quickly that Magnum was deeply shaken by his own success. That force 15 years ago was “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea.”
The qualms that Mangum likely felt in 1998 are certainly justified, considering the suddenness of the success and peculiarity of the circumstances. Prior to 1996, Neutral Milk Hotel had merely been his solo recording project. His main gig was as a member of Synthetic Flying Machine with Will Cullen Hart and Bill Doss, who had been Mangum’s high school friends. These three friends, along with fellow former classmate Robert Schneider, were already the core of the Elephant 6 Recording Co., which they founded when they moved from Louisiana to Denver in 1991. Even before “Aeroplane,” the loose collective was making a name for itself in the ’90s indie rock landscape. Schneider had founded The Apples in Stereo in 1993, while The Olivia Tremor Control — also known as Synthetic Flying Machine without Mangum — was well respected by 1997. Notables Circulatory System and Of Montreal also became associated with Elephant 6 by the early 2000s.
Still, there’s no question that “Aeroplane” dwarfs every other Elephant 6 release when it comes to acclaim and influence. It’s hard to think of indie rock as a genre without a nasally voiced Mangum doppelganger belting tunes that sound just out of his range. The slightly shaky high-notes in “Oh Comely” and “King of Carrot Flowers, Pts. 2 & 3” became not shortcomings but part of a template which bands would strive to emulate. Mangum’s vocals also worked especially well because they accentuated the vulnerability and sadness that came with his subject matter, of which the biggest inspiration is widely considered to be the story of Anne Frank.
But instead of wallowing in the tragic story that is “The Diary of Anne Frank,” Mangum treats it as an affirmation of life. Lines such as, “And through the music he sweetly displays … made for his lover who’s floating and choking with her hands across her face,” from “Two-Headed Boy,” are sang and accompanied with such gusto that he makes a horrible scene into something cathartic and triumphant. A key reason for the greatness of “Aeroplane” is that Mangum’s passion consistently allows him to combine surrealistic sentiments and frightening details into something uplifting, poignant and transcendent.
Though Mangum is the key contributor to Neutral Milk Hotel’s success and is responsible for the songwriting, the instrumentation of “Aeroplane” contains an entirely new facet of its influence. Mangum forms the typical backbone of guitar (usually acoustic) and vocals, and he has Jeremy Barnes on drums and producer Robert Schneider on bass when he needs him. That’s the extent of the “standard” pop instrumentation on this album. The rest is an array of brass instruments played by band member Scott Spillane, unorthodox organ sounds played by member Julian Koster, and a strange set that ranges from the quirky (banjo, accordion) to the downright obscure (Uilleann pipes, zanzithophone).
No indie band has used such diverse instrumentation, let alone introduced it into its sound so effectively. You can hear how this eclecticism influenced an entire legion of subsequent indie bands, including Arcade Fire, Beirut, and The Polyphonic Spree. But on “Aeroplane,” the way that Neutral Milk Hotel brought together such disparate elements instrumentally as well as thematically is nothing short of brilliant.
That’s what people have been saying for 15 years now, and they’re likely to keep on saying it. As an artist who had languished in obscurity for most of the ’90s, the heaps of instant praise given to “Aeroplane” likely would have shocked and scared anyone who was in Mangum’s position. There’s no question that’s why he abruptly stopped the music and walked off, as he did at the end of “Two-Headed Boy, Pt. 2,” and is only just returning as a solo artist. Luckily, we got to hear an out-of-nowhere manifesto while the microphones were still on.