Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Brian Heater reviews the Neutral Milk Hotel book, NY Press

In the final chapter of Kim Cooper’s meditation on Neutral Milk Hotel’s album In the Aeroplane over the Sea (Continuum Press, 104 pages, $9.95), the author tells of visibly fatigued frontman Jeff Mangum getting up in front of a crowd, apologizing for the “sick parts” and introducing a new composition, then launching in to what, to date, is the only post-Aeroplane song he’s performed in public, ending with the couplet “Knowing God in Heaven never could forgive him / So I took a hammer and nearly beat his brains.” The words, coupled with Mangum’s physical state and his subsequent retreat from the public eye may not help in a defense of Mangum’s much-debated sanity. They are, though, the stuff of rock legend, and Aeroplane is lousy with the stuff. Issued in 1998, its cult following has grown ever since. Neutral Milk Hotel’s sophomore record means an awful lot of things to an awful lot of people. This may not be Let it Be, but it certainly warrants the in-depth treatment that is the 33 1/3 series’ forte.

The book’s opening chapters relate the history of the Elephant 6 Collective, beginning with Mangum’s humble beginnings in the tiny college town of Ruston, La., as told through interviews with fellow Collective members including The Apples in Stereo’s Robert Schneider and Scott Spillane of The Gerbils and NMH. (Noticeably absent are any quotes from the notoriously reclusive Mangum.) While the back story is thin, Cooper works with what she has, telling some nice stories about musicians sharing boom box recordings.

A later chapter finds Cooper analyzing the record track-by-track, offering some compelling readings of the album’s often impenetrable imagery. The book concludes with an account of Mangum’s suspected psychosis, using quotes from his close friend (and longtime Elf Power bandmember) Laura Carter to refute them. When it’s all over, there seem to be more unanswered questions than we started with. Still, the ride is certainly worth the price of admission.

—Brian Heater, NY Press

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