Friday, October 28, 2011

Jeff Mangum Concert Prep: The Ten Best Neutral Milk Hotel Songs that Don't Appear on Any of Their Official Releases

If Jeff Mangum had completely eschewed the traditional music industry--if his output had been limited to concert bootlegs and self-produced, self-released, low-distribution cassette tapes and if there had been no official, Merge Records Neutral Milk Hotel discography--what would his legacy be? I'm thinking he wouldn't be playing a massively-hyped comeback show at Town Hall tomorrow night, for which tickets are going for $200 and above on StubHub. Chances are he'd be thought of as a kind of Daniel Johnson figure, a fringe, outside artist-type with powerful raw songwriting ability, buffeted by a winsome sort of nonchalance vis a vis production values, record labels, the vagaries of the modern world, etc. He'd be like Ariel Pink, pre-Before Today, a jelously-whispered secret among fans of the I-don't-give-a-fuck school of lo-fi bedroom rock. Or perhaps he'd be like the dearly-departed New York punk collective Live Fast Die, putting out 7-inch after 7-inch without ever sniffing mainstream success or ever hewing to traditional, formalized standards of musical production like The Album--and not caring about this, in any event. What I'm saying is that there's a precedent for fringe artists to stay fringe and revel in their fringiness and become important thereby; Jay Reatard was another serial 7-incher whose music hardly lent itself to traditional commercial packaging, and he turned out OK, except for the whole death part.

Mangum could have done this; in retrospect, it's a little surprising that he ever made a single traditional full-length, never mind two of them. The most productive period of his career arguably predates Neutral Milk Hotel's involvement with Merge, and between 1990 and 1993, Mangum produced about a half-dozen demos and tapes, almost all of which are incredibly rare in their physical form. Some of the songs he recorded on them ended up on later albums and compilations, but a lot of them did not. There are 20 or 30 songs and song fragments that never made it on to any official release, as well as 6 or 7 songs that were performed live but never recorded.

The demo format--and especially the live format--embodies the NMH ethos far better than the album or the EP, I think. One of the miraculous things about Aeoroplane is that it captures the stream-of-consciousness spirit of Mangum's home recordings without flying completely off the tracks. But this doesn't mean that the album is the format best suited to Mangum's particular talents. He's comfortable making music for small groups of people, for the friends who would get copies of his demos and tapes, for the few dozen people sitting in Jittery Joe's, for the hundred or so people at the old Knitting Factory, at the very most. He's comfortable playing snippets of sound collage for a Pitchfork reporter. But the intimacy, immediacy and sponteity of the demo--and of the live performance, a format that's only slightly more ephemeral than the early-90s, homemade demo--doesn't always translate to the album. The album, which is part artistic statement, part promotional instrument, is a more rigid, more tyrannical form than the ones with which Mangum was most at ease.

Which isn't to say that Mangum's unofficial work is superior to NHM's actual Merge discography. It definitely isn't. Many of his demos actually kind of suck! But they're a glimpse into the spirit that motivated all of Mangum's subsequent work. And again, if he never recorded an official album, Mangum would still be a semi-legendary figure, at least among a certain group of people. These ten tracks are part of the reason why.

So here they are--the TOP TEN BEST NEUTRAL MILK HOTEL SONGS THAT DON'T APPEAR ON ANY OF THEIR OFFICIAL RELEASES (and that you probably won't hear at Town Hall tomorrow night):

10. "I Love You More than Life" (1993 or so)

A twee, tender, and surprisingly non-fucked up lo-fi ditty (at least by NHM standards) from a 1993 demo. Add an electrified bassline and a tight rhythm guitar and this almost sounds like it could be a Sinead O'Connor song or something.

9. "She Did a Lot of Acid" (?)

It's 93 second long, but this song's importance is vastly disproportionate to its length. Not only is it narrative and surrealistic (and just downright disturbing) in the same way that a lot of the songs on Aeroplane are--it also just sounds like a classic-period NMH piece, and Mangum's voice begins to take on that frenzied, tortured quality that all but dominates his two albums. The fact that the track cuts off on the line "it makes me ill"--a line delivered in such a way that you know that this little story of suicide and child abuse, actually like, makes him ill--is probably accidental, but powerful nonetheless. The definitive NMH discography lists this as a live track with no corresponding studio version. But the poor audio quality and apparent lack of an audience mean that this is probably a pretty early track, back when he was playing for small groups of people who weren't in possession of professional recording equipment.

8. "I Hear You Breathe" (1993 or so)

This sounds like a slight, even throwaway track until about the 1:15 mark, when that tinny toy piano kicks in--a disquieting but somehow perfect bit of instrumentation that modern-day bedroom pop artists like Bradford Cox could probably appreciate. The lyrics get increasingly twisted and weird from that point on, and the string of abuse at around the 2:00 mark is reminiscent of "Idiot Wind" and a handful of other early 70s Dylan revenge tracks. Like so many other NMH songs, this song is far stranger and a good deal more existential than it appears.

7. "Sweet Marie" (1993 or so)

According to everything I've read about Mangum, he wasn't (and isn't) really a serious drug user. I don't know if this is true, but I'd like to think of the guy as just constantly being on his own, individual trip, like all the time. I like this track because it's undoubtedly the most psychedelic of the early NHM demos--hell, it could be the most psychedelic thing Mangum ever wrote. It's fun and upbeat (at least in its first half), and there's no menace here, at least none that I can detect. It's a pure sunshine daydream--although the digression in its second half prefigures the meandering song structure of his later work.

6. "Wishful Eyes" (1992)

The slow, repetitive strum on this one immediately brings "Oh, Comely" to mind. Mangum's characteristically deliberative, slightly howling delivery gives lines like "the time has come for leaving" a sense of near-apocalyptic gravity (like the line "the circus is in town" in Dylan's "Desolation Row," kind of). Some of the lyrics are fairly ridiculous and it sounds like Mangum made a lot of them up on the spot. But Mangum has a talent for making his nonsense seem utterly and infinitely profound--after all, even the most strung-together lines in this song culminate in the arresting realization that "the world continues on/whether or not you're still breathing"--a thought just powerful enough to hold the rest of this thing together.

5. "Candy-Coated Dream" (1993 or so)

Mangum shows some actual, conventional songwriting chops on this one. The chorus is huge--much bigger and more complicated than on any other of the early demos. And he really sells it, with the drums and guitars build into the chorus, his voice jolting from a whisper into the closest thing to a shout you'll encounter on a lot of these early and more subdued recordings. Everything about this suggests that it could have (or should have) been an Apples in Stereo song. But it's not. It's as plodding and pregnant with dread as just about anything else in the NMH catalog, and part of the song's strength is that it isn't as unambiguously upbeat as the stuff the Apples were producing at the time, even if it's fairly similar in structure.

4. "Little Birds" (1998)

This is the only Mangum song that definitely post-dates Aeroplane, and ho boy is it dark. It's arguably darker than anything on Aeroplane, like it's so dark that you sorta wonder how the person who wrote it can be anything other than deeply, deeply troubled. It draws attention to its own darkness in a way that "Two-Headed Boy Pt. 2" does not, but it's this high on this list because it points towards a future that never materialized--towards brooding, Nick Drake or Syd Barret-like masterpieces of isolation and psychosis, towards records that no sane or stable person could just casually listen to while they're cooking or driving or trying to get work done-- towards records that are practically discomforting in their intimacy. Mangum never made these albums. But he could have. "Little Birds" proves that Mangum didn't stop recording music because he ran out of ideas--but because those ideas might, inevitably, have gotten the better of him.

3. "My Dream Girl Don't Exist" (1991)

Because who hasn't thought the same thing, at one point or another? Of course this song is about suicide and possibly also genocide, if you think of the coda and in fact the entire song as a warmup for "Holland, 1945." But Mangum has a genius for shrinking the incomprehensibly horrible down to a comprehensible human scale. And while this song's about five-year-olds slitting their wrist and tortured, trans-historical lust, it's also a bittersweet kind of coming of age story--just like Aeroplane, it uses something abstractly horrifying to convey feelings more immediate and tangible. Worth mentioning that the chord progression here is almost identical to "King of Carrot Flowers, Pt 1."

2. "Through My Tears," (1993 or so)

I'll admit that I have no idea what this song is about. The moaning vocals and ticking-clock like drum line always struck me as vaguely conspiratorial, both in the sense that there seems to be something fucked up going on in it, and in the meta-sense that the song's meaning is deliberately withheld from the listener. Where were you when what caved in? It isn't ours to know. This song evokes a profundity wholly divorced from meaning. The message is sent, but the message is also unknown. There are plenty of potentially-brilliant songs whose opacity really bugs me--"Senor (Tales of Yankee Power)," for instance. Here, the opacity is the point, and it's so well-plotted, so knotty and evocative, that it's actually one of the song's chief assets. And that opacity lends a gravity to everything that happens in it. "Where were you when it all caved in?" is easily one of the most sinister, most suggestive lines in the NMH cannon, even if I have little idea of what it means.

1. "Ferris Wheel on Fire," (1998?)

At the risk of revealing how my talents as a writer have deteriorated over the years, here's what I had to say about this song a long, long time ago:

Mangum eventually gave those dissonant, historical echoes a more coherent voice. Aside from his home-recorded tape loops, most of Mangum’s early demos were stream-of-consciousness reformulations of the problems that stalk most young adults: friendships, relationships, and the darker regions of the late adolescent psyche. But there are also songs that suggest a certain progression in his thinking—songs like “Ferris Wheel on Fire,” which seems like it could be based upon an actual event. And even if it is not, the song weaves together fragments of memory and experience in a way that echoes the disquieting, abstract sound collage.

Mangum sings,

Now I’m keeping stow
In someone’s bright carnival ride
All the crowd just cheers
As the bolts break and metal collides
Spiraling through
And flying up all over the hills
And now everything’s broken in two
And everything’s way over.

“Ferris Wheel on Fire” is a pre-Aeroplane composition that didn’t make it on to either of Neutral Milk Hotel’s full-length albums. But it introduces Aeroplane’s interest in forcing some catastrophe upon listeners, and Mangum places listeners in the middle it, making them think or feel their way through it even though the music serves as their only frame of reference. In “Ferris Wheel,” Mangum narrates as his emotional naïité is swept away by a world of senseless tragedy, and as the catastrophe becomes intertwined with the very innocence it disallows. The “bright carnival ride” is a vestige of uncomplicated youth turned into a smoldering symbol of the chaos and complication of the adult world.

But there’s more to it than that. In lines that could have been written about 9/11, Mangum sings,

But now most of all
I am holding you under my skin
Watch these buildings fall
Watch as each weak resistance caves in
All over you all over
And now finally fading from view
Is everything we ever knew

The narrative goes from a Ferris wheel on fire to two late-adolescent lovers clutching each other as their world is spectacularly destroyed. Perhaps the line about “weak resistance” equates the catastrophe to the crossing of certain sexual or emotional boundaries, or maybe the prospect of great personal upheaval is playing itself out in a figurative, personal apocalypse. Either way, to be young and exposed to the world’s traumatizing realities is catastrophic in its own right—in Aeroplane, Mangum takes this a step further and narrates the loss of everyone’s naïvité.

Because in Aeroplane, the Catastrophe is the Holocaust.

Fuck, what can I add to this. I can think of a half-dozen great songs about youthful disillusionment--"My Back Pages," "Dreams Burn Down," Deerhunter's "Desire Lines," more recently. None of them are quite the atom-bomb that "Ferris Wheel on Fire" is. This song is the pure, musical distillation of psychic disorder and change. Few other songs capture Neutral Milk Hotel's astounding talent for evoking life's rawness and messiness in a way that is neither self-pitying nor self-indulgent. You only have to listen to the last Antony and Johnson's record to understand how hopeless this usually is. But for two records, an EP and a handful of self-released demos, Mangum and company pulled it off perfectly.

No comments:

Post a Comment