Neutral Milk Hotel – [Box Set]

Neutral Milk Hotel – [Box Set]

Sunday, 12 March 2023
Neutral Milk Hotel – In The Aeroplane Over The Sea – “King Of Carrot Flowers (Part 1)”

Neutral Milk Hotel
Collected Works [Box Set]
(Merge Records)
I confess I never listened to Neutral Milk Hotel before. I knew it was considered one of the great alternative bands, but I never heard anything else that made me want to listen to them. There were moments I definitely felt I should check it out, wishing, as I do, to be well informed about music. But I never made the move.

Until now. Offered the chance to review their Collected Works, I figured it was time to make their acquaintance. An opportunity to explore their works, and provide a virgin take on it. Neutral Milk Hotel fans will probably be disappointed with the results.

First off, this collection is overwhelming. Both official albums (On Avery Island and In the Aeroplane Over the Sea), plus EPs and live recordings — so much to absorb. But the real problem is that I found Jeff Mangum’s voice annoying. (Neutral Milk Hotel is primarily Mangum and friends. For clarity, I shall refer to all the recordings as by the band, even the solo live material.) Put the two together — the voice and the number of times I had to listen to it — and I could barely get through even a fraction of the collection.

The music is standard lo-fi; basic, rough around the edges, with occasional excursions into noise territory. The live material is primarily acoustic guitar. It does mesh well with the voice, although in an unsettling way. This is not music to relax to.

Then there are the lyrics. Weird doesn’t begin to describe them. Unsettling is too mellow a word. One could spend hours attempting to decipher them, although that is likely a waste of time. Still, it is hard to resist. With songs like “Two-Headed Boy,” “Little Birds” and “Baby for Pree,” it seems there is some sort of family trauma going on here — but not necessarily Mangum’s family. In the live material, he says, “It’s about a family that lived in the 1940s in Europe. I have dreams about one particular member of that family.” Which ties into the song “My Dream Girl Doesn’t Exist.” Is it all some surreal take on the Holocaust?

In fact, the impression I get is that you would gain nothing from learning the stories behind the songs. That the unsettling is the point. These are not songs to be understood, but only to be experienced. There is an adage, although I’m not sure who it is attributed to, that great art should make you uncomfortable — so maybe this is great art, but the admission of that possibility might amount to an unanticipated fault in this music.

I can see how some people love this band, even become obsessed. In fact, the very things I have trouble with could be what others love. The very weirdness has its own appeal. Neutral Milk Hotel are unique; fans can feel exclusive, liking a band that few others enjoy. Although I am able to resist analyzing the lyrics, I can see people spending hours poring over them, trying to ascertain what Mangum is singing about.

I’ll admit, I did get used to the voice, and the lo-fi, and the strangeness. I came to see it all as part of the whole and to appreciate it — in small doses. But I still don’t appreciate the designs of Neutral Milk Hotel’s music enough to make me a fan. [G. Murray Thomas]


Neutral Milk Hotel’s Collected Works box set is out now. Buy it here, from Merge Records’ official store.

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