One of the great things about the emergence of alternative and indie music in the 1990s was that it ushered in an era of utterly awesome band names. Ned’s Atomic Dustbin. The Jesus Lizard. Blind Melon. And then, from the Random Combination Of Nouns And Adjectives Department, we have indie deity Jeff Magnum’s best-known band, Neutral Milk Hotel.
If you’ve never heard of Neutral Milk Hotel, you should really grab a hold of their 1998 album, “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea” and give it a listen. Loosely and cryptically based on the life of Anne Frank, it’s a bizarre contradiction of an album; it’s sonically vast and innovative, yet at times sounds horribly recorded and engineered. Its lyrics are fascinatingly beautiful but frustratingly confusing. At the time of its release, one confused critic noted that it was, “…undoubtedly a major statement, but just what it’s saying is anyone’s guess.”
Regardless of what you think about the album in its entirety, it’s hard not to be stopped in your tracks by the catchy folk gem that makes up its first two minutes.
What makes this a beautiful song:
1. The acoustic guitar. It’s the backbone of the song, compressed like crazy, and it immediately makes you feel like you’re sitting around a campfire gearing up for a good-ol’ singalong. Except that most campfire singalongs don’t include accordions.
2. The vocals. I once sat in a University common room at the end of a long night while at least a dozen people belted this song out. And that’s really the best way to describe Magnum’s singing style; he belts it out like his life depends on it. His lack of actual singing ability doesn’t matter, because the genuine emotion in his voice compels you to listen.
3. The lyrics. In that same University common room singalong, the impromptu performers sang the words as proudly as athletes singing their national anthem from the top of the podium, as if each word exploded from their hearts. “When you were young you were the king of carrot flowers. / And how you built a tower tumbling through the trees, / And holy rattlesnakes that fell all round your feet.” It’s hard to tell whether Jeff Magnum is a genius or insane, but either way, not since Dr. Seuss has nonsense been more catchy.
Recommended listening activity:
After thinking about it at least once a week for years, finally getting back in touch with a University/College/High School friend.