A $156 Celebration of a Band That May as Well Have Been Imaginary

"The Collected Works of Neutral Milk Hotel" is a gorgeous, frustrating reminder that we'll never get the answers we're looking for

February 28, 2023 6:40 am
Neutral Milk Hotel on a background featuring art from their new box set
Neutral Milk Hotel is forever frozen in time

Neutral Milk Hotel put out exactly two albums during their 10 years together as a professional band. There is 1996’s fuzzy and spare On Avery Island, and the vaudeville mysticism of 1998’s In The Aeroplane Over The Sea — which, if you grew up loving indie rock, was probably one of the keystones of your addiction. A couple apocryphal EPs also dot the timeline, as well as a bizarre homespun live recording called Live At Jittery Joe’s and a whole catalog of loosies and demos that never made it past the studio. The miniature catalog is getting the white tablecloth treatment at Merge Records — Neutral Milk Hotel’s eternal home — who just issued a vinyl box set, called The Collected Works of Neutral Milk Hotel, containing everything the band recorded over the course of their curious run. The core albums are repressed in tasteful gatefold parcels, Jittery Joe’s is pressed on a picture disc, and the box set is tinseled with that distinct World’s Fair psychedelia that has always lended Neutral Milk Hotel its offbeat aesthetic flavor. All together, you’re looking at a $156 price tag. The group has been dead for decades, and yet, we keep finding ways to stay haunted by their ghost.

For the uninitiated, the legend of Neutral Milk Hotel begins and ends with the aforementioned In The Aeroplane Over The Sea. Before that album made landfall in 1998, the band was a beloved — but corporeal — fixture of the booming Athens DIY scene, centered around an assortment of talented misfits, most of them in Athens, Georgia, who called themselves the Elephant Six Collective. Bands like Of Montreal, The Apples in Stereo and The Olivia Tremor Control emerged from that primordial soup, and they perfected a fractured, haunted interpretation of the late-60s freakouts from The Zombies and The Beach Boys. Neutral Milk Hotel earned some mild national praise for On Avery Island, but as the story goes for so many tales of rock and roll mythology, Jeff Mangum, the band’s lead singer and creative engine, started to fall down a wild rabbit hole during the recording of their sophomore effort. In The Aeroplane Over The Sea functions, at least in part, as a paean for Anne Frank; the teenager who perished in a concentration camp in 1943. Mangum, swollen by the tragedy after reading her diary, penned heavy, blistering lines about the cruelty of life and the derangement of unrequited love, while the band kicked up a Depression-era instrumentation milieu of hurdy-gurdys, singing saw, and zanzithophone. The sleeve featured a reappropriated vintage postcard of a woman gesturing towards the ocean. Her head has been replaced with either a drum, or a halved potato, depending on your own interpretation.

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This is not a particularly flattering description. When broken down to its base ingredients, In The Aeroplane Over The Sea might sound pretentious, maudlin and sickeningly atonal. Jeff Mangum sings in a nasally cowboy bleat — vocal chords increasingly red and raw the deeper we get into the run time. And yet, despite all of these irritating precepts, there is an undeniable magic to Neutral Milk Hotel. The band, and its music, seems eternally displaced from time; illusory, phantasmal, reluctantly revealing its secrets over thousands of spins. Part of that is to do with their own material circumstances. Neutral Milk Hotel called it quits the same year In The Aeroplane Over The Sea was released. The majority of indie rock fans who fell in love with them were doing so in a world where they no longer existed, which made them ripe for emotional projection. But there’s also a fabulously mythic quality native to the music, almost like a beguiling artifact from a lost civilization. Mangum’s words are gorgeous, tortured, and seem to make references to fabricated mother texts that we will never read. The record’s standout ballads — “Oh Comely,” “Two-Headed Boy” — possess enough gravitas to inspire conspiracy cork boards dedicated to uncovering their furtive meanings. “King Of Carrot Flowers Pt. 1,” the album’s opener, is simply one of the most beautiful songs ever written. In The Aeroplane Over The Sea needs to be heard in order to be believed. No album, before or since, has embodied one of the world’s simplest truths: If you know, you know.

The details surrounding Neutral Milk Hotel’s breakup have always been pretty suspect. Generally, it’s understood that Mangum struggled to adjust to his newfound clarion status in the indie rock community — his quality of life steadily decreasing as more and more people asked him about the identity of that King of Carrot Flowers. He effectively dropped off the face of the earth at the conclusion of Neutral Milk Hotel’s 1998 tour, and today, Mangum is one of indie rock’s foremost hermits. But his cult has only expanded in his absence — much like the legions of post-mortem Nick Drake fans — and before long, bands who were far more successful and notorious than Neutral Milk Hotel started to sing their praises and herald their influence. (The semi-disgraced Arcade Fire, for instance, are big fans.) So this box set is the most formal acknowledgement of Neutral Milk Hotel’s resonance. Merge is asking for the sort of cash your dad might’ve dropped on a Sticky Fingers reissue — a genuine boutique curio for a band that might as well be imaginary.

This is the short life and very, very long tail of Neutral Milk Hotel. I am in the prime demographic for this box set — which is to say I’m a 31-year old white guy — and the $156 price tag hasn’t done much to deter me. (In general, I am all for consecrating music that isn’t a linchpin of the boomer canon.) But there is something fraught about zombifying this tiny catalog of Neutral Milk Hotel songs when it’s become abundantly clear that Mangum is fully disinterested in preserving his outsized legacy. In 2013, the band got back together for a slew of shows throughout Europe and the United States. I went to one of them, in downtown Austin, Texas, and watched as this group of graying Georgia beatniks churned through a selection of stone-cold classics. The mercenary parameters of the tour were clear to everyone in the room; Neutral Milk Hotel were not releasing any new music, and I’m sure the international tour of venues they could’ve never invaded back in the late ’90s as a hardscrabble indie rock group paid dividends. That uncomfortable truth left an unmistakably cynical residue on the evening. It was as if I was watching Neutral Milk Hotel formulate into a cover band for their own music — a gesture towards a spirit they could no longer embody. (For a more mainstream comparison, consider the junket of festival dates Outkast played in the mid-2010s.) The band played their last show in 2015 and haven’t been seen since. I’m not surprised.

This vinyl package will basically serve the same purpose of that tour. Those who buy it will be bolstering the bank accounts of the souls who passed through Neutral Milk Hotel many years ago, and as fans, I think we can all agree that to be money well spent. But if you love In The Aeroplane Over The Sea, you probably remain captivated by its puzzle-box intrigue. I don’t listen to the record so much as I try to decode its inner clarity — the source of the enchantment that seems forever out of reach. The band appeared to me in high school and left me with a lifetime of fascinating questions, and when I fork over the cash for The Collected Works, it’ll just be more confirmation that I’m never going to get those answers. Here, in 2023, In The Aeroplane Over The Sea is just another asset. Neutral Milk Hotel is dead. The timeline is solidified. I will never know more about the two-headed boy, or the King of Carrot Flowers, or whether or not it’s a potato or a drum. All we can do — fans, reporters and former band members alike — is continue to build a mausoleum. We will never give up the ghost.

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