17
Nov
2011
My Year in Lists
Week Forty Six
Jordan
My Year in Lists chronicles one blogger's quest to understand why music matters to us and what makes it a lasting aspect of our existence. To facilitate this examination, three music fans have contributed a list of 52 essential albums. Each week this year, one album off of each list will be analyzed in an attempt to understand why some music sticks with us and what it means for our lives.

"Can't believe how strange it is to be anything at all"¦"-Jeff Mangum, "In the Aeroplane Over the Sea."

Few albums can manage to capture the true spirit of the alternative movement. Most of the movement's best albums eventually get coopted by mainstream music, forcing many fans of "pure alternative" to decry them as sellouts. Many other gems remain hidden beneath much better recognized music, never to be discovered by enough people to be fully appreciated by the movement as a whole. If one album over the last 15 years has managed to become synonymous with alternative music, to become shorthand for fans of the movement to feel one another out in the dark corners of small venues and overcrowded bars, I would argue that album is Neutral Milk Hotel's In the Aeroplane Over the Sea.

The album never became a runaway hit on the scale of something like Nevermind or
Dookie, yet it has sold consistently since its release, in large enough numbers to get some notice. It didn't touch off a cultural revolution like grunge or give momentum to the alternative movement like REM did withMurmur (hell, if I had to classify the album by genre, I would probably struggle for a bit and then call it psychedelic folk, a genre that has always been out on the edge of musical consciousness). It was just a great (arguably perfect) album that fans of alternative music could get behind. By creating In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, Neutral Milk Hotel had encapsulated an alternative ideal that no one else had ever quite perfected: they created an unassailably awesome album without losing a shred of their credibility; they, in short, made great art that got recognized as great without being coopted (and therefore, in some minds, destroyed) by mainstream culture.

When I wrote about George Lucas and artistic death earlier this year, I cited In the Aeroplane Over the Sea as another example of the phenomenon. I argued there that George Lucas gave up on being a great filmmaker after Star Wars because he felt he had reached his ultimate potential; he had made his masterpiece, and everything he did afterwards would only pale by comparison (he was right, by the way. And if you're curious why he returned to directing for the first time since the first Star Wars film for The Phantom Menace, the answer is: alimony. Lucas got divorced in the mid-"˜90s and lost a whole lot of his Star Wars fortune in the process). I think artistic death comes at the moment an artist realizes that the art, and the pressure that comes from creating great art, has beaten them. Art is a constant battle, with yourself and with culture at large, to create something great, to craft something that makes an impact and that you will be remembered for. Once you've made your masterpiece, I can understand why you might feel it I futile to ever try again. Another example I brought up in my Lucas piece that I think fits just as well here is Harper Lee. She wrote To Kill a Mockingbird, and then she never put pen to paper again. She knew she had crafted her masterpiece, and decided writing anything else would just tarnish, rather than improve, her artistic legacy. So, with an eye towards the album as both the platonic ideal of an alternative album, and as the artistic death of frontman Jeff Mangum (who has not released any music since this album, though he has played live a few times, mostly in the last year), let's dive in to our last track-by-track analysis and take a close look at In the Aeroplane Over the Sea.

The opening track, "King of Carrot Flowers, Pt. 1" sets the stage for the allegory that will run throughout the album, and seems like a good point to explain my big-picture view of what the album is about (I don't know that I'd go so far as to call it a rock opera, in that it never tells a straightforward story, but I definitely view the work as a concept album). To my mind (and this is not a radical reading, though the band has never confirmed it), the album is about Jeff Mangum's heartbreaking realization while reading The Diary of Anne Frank that he was in love with the protagonist, a girl who had died over 50 years earlier. "King of Carrot Flowers Pt. 1" does not delve into this theme directly, but it does talk begin to address some of the album's theme's outright. The song addresses youthful imagination (and the darker consequences of taking your daydreams too seriously, as Mangum has), love amidst chaos (in the case of this song, young love budding while the protagonist's parent's marriage falls apart), and the ways we can be isolated from the ones we love.

"King of Carrot Flowers Pts. 2 and 3" begins to discuss Anne Frank, though still through a veil of symbolism. To my reading (call it a stretch if you must), the opening refrain "I love you Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ I love you, yes I do" can be read as a reference to the Jewish population forced to hide from the Nazis, many of whom attempted to do this by professing to be Christians. If that reading doesn't do much for you, there's always the idea that Mangum is expressing the intensity of his love for Frank here. The "Pt 3" portion of the song is more directly about the Frank's flight to the hidden chambers where they spent the last few months of their lives, with the confident assertions, "I will float until I learn how to swim" and "I will spit until I learn how to speak" a comforting thought as the family heads "up through the doorway as the sideboards creak."



The title track (which is one of the album's most popular songs, though I maintain a full-throated defense can be made for any of the songs on the album as the best) is a fairly straightforward love song, but one tinged with nostalgia if the album's big-picture is entered in to the reading of it. The song is about living in the present and enjoying your life while you have it, both positive messages that become slightly more bittersweet when you realize Mangum is living in the present while his beloved lives in the past, and that while he is alive and has his youth, she is long dead. Ultimately, he comes to a deeply profound conclusion about his predicament in the song's last lines, as he hopes to meet her in another life, but admits that he "can't believe how strange it is to be anything at all."



"Two-Headed Boy" can be read (as its title might imply) in two equally compelling ways, and I think both equally apply. In the first instance, the "two headed boy" is Mangum himself, who feels like a deformed person in a freak show while attempting to reconcile his (admittedly creepy) feelings for a long dead girl who was pre-pubescent (or at least prohibitively young) when she wrote the words that made him fall in love with her. On the other hand, the song's metaphor can easily be read to approximate the feeling of Jewish people in Nazi Germany, or to be discussing the Frank family as a whole. "I can hear as you tap on your jar, I am listening to hear where you are" sounds to my ear like a reference to the system of taps used by allies of the Franks to signify their arrival to deliver supplies, and also like Mangum yearning desperately to hear any sign of his love. The chorus is a powerful and passionate description of love when "All is breaking." The idea of Mangum's love may never be stronger on the album than it is here, yet there is always the bittersweet realization of just how impossible his love is. The chorus reminds us that "now your eyes ain't moving" and the song ends with the realization that he must "wait until the point where you let go." The musical interlude that follows, "The Fool," is a tragic dirge that seems to be referencing Mangum's foolish position while never letting go of the sadness beneath the surface of the absurdity.





"Holland, 1945" is the most direct song on the album, and also one of its most upbeat (tempo wise at least). Mangum directly tells us in the song's opening lines, "The only girl I've ever loved, was born with roses in her eyes, but then they buried her alive one evening 1945, with just her sister at her side, and only weeks before the guns all came and rained on everyone." This is a full confession that Mangum is in love with Anne Frank, who was killed with her sister in a concentration camp in 1945 only a few weeks before the camp was liberated. The chorus is aimed at motivating Mangum to move on. He tells himself, "but now we must pick up every piece of the life we used to love, just to keep ourselves at least enough to carry on." The song ends with another one of Mangum's tragic profundities, as he maligns violence and general moral bankruptcy, saying "its so sad to see, the world agree, that they'd rather see their faces filled with flies, oh when I want to keep white roses in their eyes."



"Communist Daughter" is an openly sexual song, but I would argue probably not in the way you first think. While it appears to be about the segment of the book dealing with Frank's burgeoning sexuality, the most repeated line, "semen stains the mountaintops" is in fact just a piece of artfully lurid imagery discussing snowfall during the time the events of the song takes place (for those of you who want to take a filthier meaning of the "mountaintops," I'd maintain the song isn't going for that). The song does reference Frank's masturbation, however, in the lines "And wanting something warm and moving, bends towards herself the soothing, proves that she must still exist, she moves herself about her fist." This is unabashedly candid stuff, yet also shows the tenderness Mangum has for Frank, discussing the empowering aspects of the act and its ability to be life-affirming in all the darkness she had to endure.



"Oh Comely" is a surrealist journey through various motivations for sex, likely springing from Mangum's conflicted feelings. It opens with his seemingly pure (enough) intent to be with Frank when she loses her virginity, "chasing the only, meaningful memory you thought you had left," though he warns her that "it isn't as pretty as you'd like to guess." The song then shifts perspectives, first discussing Frank's attempts to find someone she could talk openly about sex with, and then leaving her behind completely for a brief image collage of a boorish father who "made fetuses with flesh licking ladies while you and your mother were asleep in the trailer park." To my mind, the song discusses two warring perspectives on sex, one widely characterized as male and one widely characterized as female (though, to be clear, I am not ascribing either of these views to one gender, or, in fact, to anyone): the idea, usually considered more feminine, of sex as a romantic and pure act, and the idea, usually considered more masculine, of sex as a messy affair full of defilement, disgrace, and "Fleshy fingers." Put another way, the song contrasts naïve, innocent views on sex with cynical views (though it does unabashedly ascribe innocence to women, like "the movements were beautiful, all in your ovaries" and cynicism and evil to men, with their "powerful pistons"). "Oh Comely" is a deeply moving epic in which Mangum processes his guilt over his feelings, and also admits, in the song's second movement, "I know they buried her body with others, her sister and mother and 500 families, and will she remember me 50 years later, I wish I could save her in some sort of time machine." He also cautions her to "know all your enemies, we know who are enemies are." The song as a whole is a titanic achievement, though perhaps the most impressive feat is that Mangum recorded the 8:18 long song in only one take (so impressing the rest of the band, that you can hear one of the band members yell "Holy Shit!" at the end of the song).



Mangum finally comes to terms with Frank's death in "Ghost," as he concedes that "Ghost, ghost I know you live within me. "And she was born in a bottle rocket 1929"¦I know that she will live forever, she won't ever die," he tells himself, speaking both to the way Anne Frank endures through his love and the fact that her book will continue her legacy forever. "Untitled" is another instrumental track, this time a more celebratory piece, seeming to move past the tragic loss and more into a celebration of a life well lived.



The final song on the album represents Mangum finally letting go of his two greatest loves: Anne Frank and making music. The song seems to serve as a near-perfect coda to Mangum's career and to the album's exploration of doomed love. "In your heart there's a spark that just screams, for a lover to bring a child to your chest that could lay as you sleep," he sings, nearly perfectly encapsulating his longing. Perhaps the most moving part of the song comes when Mangum confesses, "In my dreams you're alive and you're crying, as your mouth moves in mine soft and sweet, rings of flowers "˜round your eyes, and I'll love you for the rest of your life"¦" The song ends with Mangum admitting she is all he could need, but learning the toughest lesson of his life (and a lesson we all must learn at some point). Mangum ends his ode to Anne Frank, and his musical career with a plea both to himself and to his audience: "but don't hate her when she gets up to leave." And with that, you can hear him put down his guitar, get up, and walk away.



In The Aeroplane Over the Sea is the platonic ideal of an alternative album, deeply emotional, just experimental enough, deeply strange in parts and wholly accessible in others, with a sound all its own that can be appreciated by all and coopted by none, a success that gives the band the recognition they deserve without anyone ever accusing them of growing too big or selling out. It is also a near-perfect album, an example of artistic death that makes a compelling, beautiful, and tragic argument for letting your heart out of your chest and then walking away, leaving your masterpiece to speak for you.

John Watermann was an Australian composer who utilized field recordings, heavily treated by electronics, to create rhythms through cut ups. Illusions of Infinite Bliss, Tab's pick this week, wavers between moments of excellence and moments that are fairly boring and uneventful. On the whole, the conceit of his style does not hold up all that well over the two hours of the double album. "Paradise of Skinned Mothers" is the example of one of the tracks that doesn't work, sounding more like a jumble of sounds over the same short, repetitive clip for over four minutes. "Blue Nazi Lagoon Teaser" is much more effective, relying more on a beat with occasional field recordings in the background. The beat does start to wear a little as the song, which nears seven minutes long, goes on, but it is a much more pleasant experience than many of the album's other offerings.

"Vatican Griller" is a song that passes so quickly and so inconsequentially, its hard to be sure anything even happened, mostly because nothing of substance did. "Cracked Up Since Burma" manages to sustain a decently creepy feel throughout its runtime, but ultimately, it just sounds like a cheap rip-off of Nurse With Wound. Ultimately, John Watermann is one of those artists that is much easier to appreciate intellectually than actually. I can respect his artistic vision, to be sure, but his music doesn't do a whole lot for me, especially not when thrown at me in a double album. It's the sort of stuff stuff that makes me long for David Jackman.

The Field, otherwise known as Swedish techno artist Axel Willner, takes a completely different approach to techno music. Where, as we previously discussed some people consider techno largely soulless, Willner instead turns in unabashedly emotional work that attempts to take abstract feelings and condense them into electronic sounds. His debut album, and Collin's pick this week, From Here We Go Sublime, shows this tendency in all of its potential glory. The melancholy on "Good Things End" is almost completely counteracted by the blissful reverie of "Everyday."





The epic sweep of "The Deal" seems to conjure feelings of hope for the future, occasionally mixing in enough nostalgia to remind us of the past that future means leaving behind. The title track, which closes the album, seems to attempt to affirm the joy on the album and leave behind the sorrow, though it is too repetitive to make me feel anything other than sort of annoyed (though the sample of "I Only Have Eyes For You" is a masterful touch). On the whole, From Here We Go Sublime is an interesting experiment in electronica and another reminder that just because music is techno doesn't mean it has to be soulless.




Whether we witnessed an artistic birth, as we did on From Here We Go Sublime, an artistic death as we did on In The Aeroplane Over the Sea, or an artist flourishing in his own sonic experimentation as we did on Illusions of Infinite Bliss, this week we saw three albums completed by passionate people working their hardest to achieve their vision. Not every album will be perfect, no. Not all of them will even be very good. But art is a battle, a constant struggle for excellence, an endless striving to better what's come before or to better express what's going on inside our heads to the outside world. At its worst, music can fail to get that message across. Yet at its best, it serves as a reminder of just how strange, and how wonderful, it is to be anything at all.

Read more My Year in Lists here

Next week on My Year in Lists:
We'll check back in on Pixies for a trio of albums with Surfer Rosa, Bossanova and Tromp Le Monde, travel with Massive Attack to the Mezzanine, and sit beside The National to watch a Boxer.
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