NPR logo Old Music Tuesday: Neutral Milk Hotel

Old Music Tuesday: Neutral Milk Hotel

Watch a video for 'In the Aeroplane Over the Sea'

When I moved to Athens, GA in the early '90s it felt like I'd missed out on everything that was cool about the music scene there. R.E.M. and the B-52s had already made their biggest mark on rock, and while plenty of smaller bands were still banging away in the local clubs, there wasn't anything particularly groundbreaking coming out.

All that changed by 1996 or so with The Elephant 6 Recording collective, a large group of musicians with a shared love of lo-fi, neo-psychedelia. It spawned bands like The Olivia Tremor Control, Elf Power, Of Montreal, and The Apples in Stereo, all of them churning out remarkably rich, melodic soundscapes that left me wide-eyed.

It was a magical time to be in Athens. Each live show or new E-6 album that came out made the town crackle with excitement. Many of us felt like we were witnessing a creative milestone... at least something special and memorable.

Of all the E-6 bands, for me, none were more magical than Neutral Milk hotel and the songs of frontman Jeff Mangum. Mangum's music has been called "folk fuzz" with a sound like "a marching band on an acid trip." But for me it was just inspired, sonic bliss.

NMH's first album was the largely overlooked On Avery Island in 1996. It wasn't as interesting as what the other E-6 bands were doing. But then in 1998, ten years ago this month, came the truly breathtaking LP In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, Jeff Mangum's epic masterpiece.

Aeroplane was (and still is) grand but intimate. The acoustic guitars were so compressed and crunchy it felt like each song was about to burst apart at the seams. But it was Mangum's lyrics that made me feel like I was soaring through the stratosphere. Though some of the songs were twisted and sad, like "Two Headed Boy," others, like the title track, were filled with so much hope and beauty I truly felt like I'd discovered in them the meaning of life.

Okay. That's a little corny. But it's also true. Whenever I'm about to take a nose dive into some existential downward spiral I just remember these lines: "And when we meet on a cloud, I'll be laughing out loud. I'll be laughing with everyone I see... can't believe how strange it is to be anything at all..." ...and suddenly everything is better.