Revisit is a series of reviews highlighting past releases that now deserve a second look.
It’s understandable why so many music fans and critics think Neutral Milk Hotel’s impact on indie music starts and ends with In The Aeroplane Over The Sea. Simply put, Aeroplane is still one of music’s defining aural documents, one of those few albums where all the gushing, awe and open-jawed wonder seem entirely appropriate and somehow insufficient. Ten years on from its initial release, it’s still hard to put its beauty and heartbreak, promise and despair, specter of death and promise of rebirth, into perspective. Perhaps to Jeff Mangum’s discomfort, the album continues to inspire a borderline psychotic devotion among indie fans; it’s the type of album that can reduce even the most cynical and callous bastard to an emotional and quivering wreck.
Yet many of the themes and musical concepts that define Aeroplane were first explored, with often darker and bleaker tones, on debut album On Avery Island. Though the album bears the Neutral Milk Hotel moniker, in many ways this is misleading, as future band members Julian Koster, Jeremy Barnes and Scott Spillane weren’t involved. The album’s main driving forces were Mangum, who played drums, guitar, keyboards and a small army of various other instruments, and Robert Schneider, who played bass and organ as well as crafted the album’s horn arrangements. Released in 1996, just a short time before Aeroplane would unexpectedly saddle Mangum with a huge fucking albatross around his neck for life, the album’s lo-fi experimentation has aged remarkably well and can now be seen as an intriguing and tantalizing first step toward the style and substance perfected on Aeroplane.
Indeed, the groundwork for the often disparate musical styles blended to such devastating effect on Aeroplane can be found on this debut effort. It alternates between moments of straightforward folksiness stripped bare and sections of wailing horns, loops, fuzz and other hallmarks of lo-fi. “A Baby For Pree” features nothing more than Mangum and an acoustic guitar, while the hazy “Three Peaches” augments this guitar with understated drones and ghostly background vocals. Other songs veer wildly in the opposite direction; fuzz and horns run wild on “Song Against Sex” and “Gardenhead/Leave Me Alone,” both of which wouldn’t sound out of place on Aeroplane. Other songs exist somewhere in between these extremes. The acoustic foundations of both “Naomi” and “Where You’ll Find Me Now” are propelled along by drums and keyboards, each song precariously dangling somewhere between traditional folk and obtuse experimentation. On Avery Island maintains a delicate balance between these often contradictory elements; if Aeroplane managed to walk that tight rope perfectly – and inspire a rabid fan base in the process – here the results are more jagged and fractured but no less fascinating. There is little breathing room throughout On Avery Island, its avalanche of instrumentation thrown together into a dizzying whole.
While Aeroplane at least implies that there’s light to cut through the darkness, On Avery Island is startling for its overall somber mood. While many of the one-word lyrical obsessions that would define Aeroplane are present – childhood, sex, death – On Avery Island deals heavily in darkness and despair. Though one must tread lightly when examining Mangum’s lyrics, some patterns do emerge. Images equal parts haunting and surreal are often thrown together uneasily; the nightmare soundscape of opener “Song Against Sex” is especially jarring, invoking everything from a hanging dead man from whom fishes fly out from his hands to an apocalyptic vision of fire engulfing the trees. Similar horrors recur throughout the album, most notably on “A Baby For Pree,” which features Mangum’s most tender singing and a horrific central image of a woman swimming in her babies on a bathroom floor.
Nearly every song carries with it a sense of finality, usually in the form of death creeping in or someone wandering in isolation. While listeners could find bits of comfort in Aeroplane’s lyrical textures, here the songs have very little hint of that; close the lid and shovel the dirt on top. The narrator in “You’ve Passed” is fatalistic in the first degree, an unnamed woman’s death bringing on a bout of regret and brooding that doesn’t seem likely to end anytime soon: “But now I should have told you/ When your eyes were alive and awake/ Always in life we all must make this mistake/ And so I go it alone.” “April 8” in many ways sounds like the song’s companion piece, its narrator taking stock of his life and having very little to show for it: “Always a lonely widow/ Half awake and sleeping on my feet/ I’m of age but have no children/ No quarter phone booth calls to home/ Just late-night television/ Inside my bedroom all alone.” While the album isn’t completely morose, with both “Someone Is Waiting” and “Three Peaches” offering a sense of devotion and even romantic sentimentality, in most respects its songs are pensive and lacking Aeroplane’s implied determination in the face of despair, however buried or muddled that might have been.
Though On Avery Island will likely always be overshadowed by the album that followed it, it still remains a key piece of the Neutral Milk Hotel story. Musically and lyrically it laid the foundations for what would be more fully refined and realized on Aeroplane. While its concepts are smaller – there’s little along the lines of Anne Frank connecting these songs – it is in many cases equally emotional and creative. A small window of hope exists in Aeroplane, and the listener is free to determine whether that window is opening or closing. In On Avery Island it’s impossible to shake the feeling that this window is slammed shut and probably won’t ever open again.