Neutral Milk Hotel was an indie/experimental/noise pop band from Athens, Georgia. They were active in the 1990s, and they released two incredible albums between 1995 and 1998. They were part of the Elephant 6 Collective, which also includes the bands The Apples in Stereo, and Olivia Tremor Control. Although I have a couple of releases by OTC, I’ve never really been able to get into them that much.
Of the Elephant 6 bands and all of the off-shoots, Neutral Milk Hotel is by far the most important and influential and enigmatic. While all of the bands are certainly unconventional in their approach to song structure and instrumentation, Neutral Milk Hotel managed to appeal to a more widespread audience even while maintaining their weirdness. While a lot of post-rock bands include the same instruments that they used, it just seemed weirder when Neutral Milk Hotel was doing it. Trumpets, tubas, musical saws, ukulele, bagpipes, and so on. I guess there was that coupled with the way they presented themselves as sort of a circus side-show from the 1930s.
Frontman Jeff Mangum is a very strange bird. A strange but heart-breakingly brilliant bird. I’ve heard some stories about their shows being unpredictable because Mangum might fly off the handle and try to fight his bandmates or even the audience. Performers might play their bits from an off-stage position. They might encourage audience participation or they might act as if the audience wasn’t there.
After they put out two smashing records that were on everyone’s best of 1995 and best of 1998 lists, they went on hiatus. While they’ve threatened to get back together and record some new material, that hasn’t happened. They’ve played a couple of super-secret shows, and Jeff Mangum has played some super-secret solo shows, and he’s made some appearances on a couple of records, but by and large, they’ve been silent since 2001.
I can’t say that I was on board with Neutral Milk Hotel from the start. I didn’t get into them until about 1999, when a friend loaned me his copy of In The Aeroplane…. I put it in my car stereo and immediately went to the second song “King Of Carrot Flowers Pt 2&3”. As you probably know, the first 1:15 of that song is just the lyric “I love you Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ I love you, yes I do” before turning into a smashing fuzzy buzzy noise-pop song. I didn’t make it that far. After a minute of “I love you Jesus Christ” I gave up, pressed the eject and wrote it off. The next time I spoke to my friend, I asked him why he thought that I would be into Jesus rock, and I told him exactly what happened. He explained that I needed to be more patient and that I needed to listen to it again immediately. I did, and I was completely blown away.
It’s been widely reported that Mangum is fascinated by World War II, and that In The Aeroplane Over The Sea is generally about WWII, and specifically about Anne Frank. Tonight’s song certainly suggests that.
“Holland 1945” by Neutral Milk Hotel
And now for a little bit of history.
The Frank family fled Germany to Amsterdam in 1933 when the Nazis took over power. As you may recall from history, the Nazis occupied the Netherlands in 1940, and that forced the Frank family into hiding. Everybody knows the story about how, in 1942, they holed up in a secret room in Anne Frank’s father’s office building. Everybody knows that she kept a diary while the family was in hiding, and that her diary would become one of the most widely-read and most important books of the 20th century.
In August of 1944, an anonymous tipster sold the family out. They were arrested and sent to work camps in The Netherlands, later to Auschwitz, and ultimately to Bergen-Belsen. Anne and her sister Margot were transported to Bergen-Belsen while their parents and brother were left in Auschwitz. In March of 1945, A typhus epidemic spread through Bergen-Belsen. Anne’s sister, in a weakened state, fell from her bunk and eventually died. Anne died a few days later.
British and Canadian troops liberated the camp on April 15, 1945. The SS handed it over without a fight. The prisoners were relocated to a safe place where they were nurtured back to health. A couple of days later after complete evacuation, the British used some very impressive machinery to bulldoze and burn the camp to the ground.
And there’s the inspiration for Mangum to use some creative license in the opening lyric
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 by her side
And only weeks before the guns
Came down and rained on everyone
The “roses in her eyes” refers to Anne Frank’s incredible ability to remain positive and hopeful even in the face of unimaginable horror. The rest of that bit refers to the internment at the concentration camp, and her death just five or six weeks before the British liberated the camp.
There’s no way to make sense of the
Now she’s a little boy in Spain
Playing pianos filled with flames
but I’ve always thought that it’s a really cool line. I guess it’s interesting to think of Anne Frank reincarnated as a Spanish pianist. I guess.
There’s a bunch of other stuff in the song that has nothing to do with Anne Frank, but the last lines are sort of a reference to her attitude, which was much more upbeat than everyone else’s.
So sad to see the world agree
That they’d rather see their faces fill with flies
When I’d want to keep white roses in their eyes
Again, the roses in the eyes, while everyone else would rather just die.
I really love the contrast between the jangly acoustic guitar in the intro and the crushing blow of full-band noise a few seconds later. Late in the song, all those trumpets and trombones and tubas and whatnot come in. I don’t love brass instruments, but I like what they do here. They make it that much more cacophonous.
You can get In The Aeroplane Over The Sea from the Neutral Milk Hotel section of the Merge Records web store here. Remember that there’s free shipping for all US orders, and that you’ll probably get some freebies (stickers, badges, seasonal sampler) with your order.