In the Aeroplane, Over Pawnee
Sometimes imitation is an insincere form of flattery. When I stumbled upon a new TV game show called Know Ya Boo, I found it reminiscent of the Newlywed Game. That’s mainly because it is a complete ripoff, from the smarmy questions of host Tom Haverford to its strange contestants. But a recent show provided an unexpected musical twist.
Haverford asked the male contestants which rock star their “ladies” would most like to “get with.” Andy, a friendly but dimwitted musician who fronts the modest Indiana band Mouse Rat, replied “that’s easy–me.” But sparks flew after his cynical girlfriend April instead chose Jeff Mangum of Neutral Milk Hotel. Not quite catching on, Andy later predicted that April’s “favorite place to smush” (don’t ask) would be “at the Neutral Milk Hotel.” And why not? After all, who says “love machine” to the ladies better than a reclusive genius whose most acclaimed work, 1998’s In the Aeroplane, Over the Sea, is a surreal concept album based on Anne Frank’s Diary?
Sadly, Know Ya Boo isn’t real. It’s a scene from NBC’s Parks and Recreation, set in the underachieving fictional town of Pawnee, Indiana. Tom Haverford is really comedian Aziz Ansari, who has previously been spotted stalking M.I.A. and singing songs about duck people with Devendra Banhart. Neutral Milk Hotel, the short-lived leading light of Athens, Georgia’s Elephant 6 collective, is perfectly placed to get an affectionate sendup, given the religious fervor that has built for the the band over the past dozen years on scores of websites and at least one well-researched thesis. Sample blog tribute: “Christianity had Paul. The United States had Federalist papers. Indie rock has Neutral Milk Hotel.” Needless to say, there’s also a ukulele tribute band, Neutral Uke Hotel.
All this fast-track canonization prompted me to stop listening to In the Aeroplane for a few years. I typecast Jeff Mangum, an imaginative guy with a polarizing voice and a low-fi approach to high-concept songwriting, as a shade too precious to reach the pantheon. But it turns out that my dismissal was premature as well. Zach Condon’s first Beirut album, 2006’s Gulag Orkestar, had so many of Mangum’s fingerprints–compressed folk strumming, evocations of Eastern European marching bands, words as travel snapshots–that I gave Aeroplane another spin. I’ve had it in heavy rotation ever since. Far from sounding like he was trying to create the Rosetta Stone of hipster cred, Mangum now sounds to me like a boy awkwardly growing into a man, haunted by a girl’s diary most of us have ignored since high school, willing to risk making a total fool of himself because he had to find a way to sing through his pain. Back in Chicago, we called that the blues.
And one day we will die
And our ashes will fly from the aeroplane over the sea
But for now we are young
Let us lay in the sun
And count every beautiful thing we can see
Mangum is finally on tour again, bringing back the evocative title track of Aeroplane . I hope he also covers “Sex Machine.”
Neutral Milk Hotel, “Holland 1945”
Neutral Milk Hotel, “Two-Headed Boy”
Neutral Milk Hotel, “In the Aeroplane, Over the Sea”