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Monday, February 18, 2019

Neutral Milk Hotel: Everything Is


1) Everything Is; 2) Here We Are (For W Cullen Hart); 3) Unborn; 4) Tuesday Moon; 5) Ruby Bulbs; 6) Snow Song Pt. 1; 7) Aunt Eggma Blowtorch.

General verdict: Derivative, but charming lo-fi psycho-pop — although for it to be interesting in the 2010s, youʼd probably have to understand all the importance of the 1960s for the 1990s.

Since the artistic reputation of Neutral Milk Hotel rests on such a small body of work, I suppose it makes sense to allocate a special review to the very first piece of that work which Jeff Mangum saw fit to submit for official commercial distribution. Originally, it was just one short single with but two songs on it, distributed by Seattleʼs indie label Cher Doll Records — then, in 1995, it fell into the hands of the British label Fire Records, who re-released it with an extra track, and this three-song version could be claimed to be the definitive form of Everything Is, since the three tracks more or less comprehensively cover all the bases that would later go on to form part of the Neutral Milk Hotel legend.

ʽEverything Isʼ is an excellent specimen of early Ninetiesʼ lo-fi, one-man psychedelic revival — distorted blues-pop guitar riffs taken from the good old garage-rock textbook; well-articulated nerdy vocals with an otherworldly touch, probably achieved through double-tracking; and surreal daydreaming lyrics that update ʽLucy In The Sky With Diamondsʼ for the contemporary listener. Additionally, I seem to detect a bit of a Brian Eno touch here — funny enough, the verse melody is very similar to ʽKurtʼs Rejoinderʼ from Before And After Science, and the similarity gets even more in your face because of the tonal resemblance between Jeff Mangum and Eno when they are in calm / quiet mode (it disappears every time Jeff goes up the scale in the chorus). This could be just a total accident, but since there is no denying Enoʼs general influence on the Elephant 6 community and on each of its representatives individually, I thought this worth mentioning.

Anyway, ʽEverything Isʼ already tells you almost more about NMH than you needed to know — how Mangum could craft second-hand, but solid melodic hooks, how his lyrical craft bravely advocated for a return to the ideals of old ("everything is beautiful here / Iʼm finally breaking free from fear" is such a major fuck-you to the angst-ridden alt-rock narrative of the time), and how you were free to take or leave snippets of sound collages and random conversations that he liked to insert in his work. A quarter century later, this revivalist ideology seems a bit fruity, and its impact is probably no longer understood by anybody who was younger than 15 years at the time, but the "and itʼs fading..." hook is still fun, and the song in general benefits from a complete lack of unwarranted pretentiousness that would follow in its wake.

If ʽEverything Isʼ is Eno-ish, then ʽSnow Song Pt. 1ʼ is quite naturally Syd Barrett-ish: its lazy acoustic guitars and even more lazily purred vocals, filling up your room like some subtle wisps of musical shisha, are recorded in the grand tradition of The Madcap, which, unfortunately, also means that the song is not likely to remain in your brain as anything other than an atmospheric cloud. I do find it funny how many different verbal influences are subconsciously affecting Mangumʼs mind here: "Cindy smiles in overcoats" (ʽCindy Tells Meʼ — Eno again), "candy-apples everythings" (ʽCandy And A Currant Bunʼ + ʽApples And Orangesʼ = Syd), "unhappy girl, sheʼs spinning" (ʽUnhappy Girlʼ = Jim Morrison), "rain is a perfectly sculpted garden of wetness" (ʽRainʼ = The Beatles) — I do not know about rain, but the song is most definitely a perfectly sculpted garden of references to cherished customers at the Neutral Milk Hotel.

The third track, ʽAunt Eggma Blowtorchʼ once again recalls Eno (ʽPaw Paw Negro Blowtorchʼ), except that it is largely just a sound collage, allegedly recorded by a 17-year old Mangum in his bedroom. It has nothing to offer other than historical interest and some signs of a curious, hyper-active searching mind looking for blissful revelation in unpredictable combinations of sound: no use looking for true artistic symbolism or suspenseful atmospheric coherence here — ʽRevolution #9ʼ it is not. But if you are 17 and you make up a sonic collage titled ʽAunt Eggma Blowtorchʼ, you may have a very bright, unusual, and painful future before you, which is exactly what happened to Jeff Mangum, so at least things check out.

The convoluted story of Everything Is does not end here, however. The next phase begins in the posthumous era: in 2001, the single was re-released on Orange Twin Records, with the addition of ʽTuesday Moonʼ, another upbeat pop song with a hazy nasal charm, but rather clunky lyrical twists ("I just want to climb your tower / To your dress like apple pie" — is this written from the perspective of a garden ant or a cross-dresser?). Finally, a 10" version of the record appeared in 2011 on the fully autonomous Neutral Milk Hotel Records — adding three more early tracks, of which ʽHere We Areʼ is an unquestionable highlight, if only for its unusually clear production: the acoustic guitars ring out loud and pretty, the slightly out-of-tune electric overdubs are almost nostalgically raga-like, and the vocals are soothing (Mangum does have a very pleasant voice, as long as he does not drive it over into higher range, at which point it becomes annoying).

From a certain point of view, even though the music would go on to become more complex and the lyrics would go on to look less like the naïve scribblings of a high schooler in love with John Lennon and Syd Barrett, all you really needed to know about Jeff Mangum and his one-man band is already encapsulated in this small bunch of tunes. Well, almost all: one thing that is clearly missing is the tragic brokedown-artist approach, which, honestly, could not yet be represented at such an early stage. This is a young and somewhat bizarrely optimistic Jeff Mangum, whose visions and aspirations have not yet had the chance of being ground down by cruel world reality. I mean, how could it be otherwise, with almost every song featuring a reference to candy, ice cream, and teacups? So catch this guy while he is still busy being a butterfly.

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