tirsdag den 8. marts 2011
Neutral Milk Hotel - In the Aeroplane Over the Sea
In my opinion, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea needs to be reconsidered. But not quite like this... Or this... Or this... The thing is, I think the complaint about a certain kind of indie, which Simon Reynolds has dubbed cutesy-poo, is entirely well founded. And I think a lot of people, fans and detractors alike, would put NMH in that category. But I think they are all wrong.
Let's begin with the first suite, The King of Carrot Flowers pt 1-3. It's about lost youth, well more than that, it's about the process of losing youth. It uses common tropes: Once we were young and created our own kingdoms in the woods. But your parents marriage disintegrated. And we discovered sex. And we discovered how pathetic our parents were... The image of the father imagining ways of killing himself: 'Each one a little more than he could dare to try' shows to me one of the most pathetic figures of lost authority. Yeah, all in all, we grew up... Well, where does the narrator turn after he has lost the original authoritarian figures in his live? We quickly get an answer, as he bellows: 'I love you Jesus Christ!!! Jesus Christ I love you, yes I do!!!' And then the music changes from nice and folksy to noisy, distorted, and uncomfortable. In my mind, this shows a narrator adrift in the world, clinging to the straw of religion to avoid being confronted with the horrors of a world.
What is most well known about the record, is that it is inspired by the diaries of Anne Frank. Does that mean, that the narrator embraces the horror and evil of his world? Well, no. It is just a further deferral. When he sings 'I which I could save her in some kind of timemachine' it is not noble or deep or anything. It is pathetic. There are countless people suffering in the world today, I recently read that 5 mil children died of hunger or malnutrition last year. Quite conceivably, he could save several of those kids, without needing any kind of scientific miracle machine. But he has closed his eyes to the world, and chosen to focus solely on a tragedy of the past. It keeps being a defense mechanism. I consider it disturbing and uncomfortable. And the music plays up that angle as well, being noisy and heavily compressed. It sounds awful, which is a point I think most people gloss over, talking about it being an unfortunate victim of the 'loudness war' or stuff like that. No. It is not meant to sound good. The sound mirrors the content, which is loud and ugly.
The nineties, when Neutral Milk Hotel and the rest of the Elephant Six collective made their most enduring records, was a weird decade. Not that I remember, I had just turned 13 at the turn of the millennium. But looking back at the culture of the day, I sea a weird mix of unproductive irony and directionless rage. The wall had fallen down, the cold war had ended with the west triumphant, the 'end of history' had been declared. And yet the world kept on being a so-so place. When bands were political, like Public Enemy or the Norwegian Black Metal bands, it was a churning rage, pointed in any and all directions at once. People were attacked in interviews – PE – or in real life – BM – without it really seeming productive. And then there was the American indiescene, with ironic slackers like Pavement or Beck, who didn't seem to have anything to say to begin with. Neutral Milk Hotel gets lumped together with these other 'ironists', as there surface of 'feyness' and 'quirkiness' is seen as somehow hiding how superficial and shallow they actually are. But there are two kinds of surfaceness. One hides the fact that there is nothing underneath, just a vacuum of vapidness and selfimportance. But the other kind hides SOMETHING. It's a focus on the surface for the sake of not having to bother with the real pain deep below the surface. To this group belong Neutral Milk Hotel. When The Impostume first talked about NMH, he mentioned Dave Eggers as being kind of similar. But Dave Eggers belong to the first group, along with a lot of other American writers, chief among them Jonathan Safran Foer. It is another writer whom NMH reminds me of: David Foster Wallace. Now, it is easy to say, that the biographies of both Jeff Mangum and Foster Wallace show them both to be much troubled individuals, not easily fitting in to the description of them as being 'fey' or 'quirky' impostors (I actually once saw a pillaging of Foster Wallaces writing being capped off with the notion that he probably laughed all the way to the bank. I wish he had...). But don't get lost in biography, look at the art! It is not happy or fey or anything, it is sad and disturbing. Foster Wallaces last short story includes an artist forming the letters HELP out of his own feces. How could we not catch up on that? At the end of In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, the Two-Headed Boy finds a real girl: 'She is all you could need / She will feed you tomatoes and radio wires and retire to sheets safe and clean / But don't hate her when she gets up to leave'. You know who would never leave you? Some perfect imaginary girl you've created out of a dead girls diaries... In this way, Anne Frank enters a long line of 'angelic' girls, being used by male writers as symbols of goodness and innocence, and denied their own messy humanity in the process. She is in good company, the lineage probably starts with Dantes Beatrice.
I love this album. It really speaks to me. But it speaks to all the worst parts of me. The part that would read about a hunger catastrophe in Africa, and would immediately go on facebook to air my rage at the capitalist system, instead of finding some charity to send money and actually help. The part that withdraws into the safe world of art and culture, whenever I get confronted with parts of the world I dislike. The part that plays really deep at social gatherings, and claims to be profoundly moved by TS Elliots The Waste Land – another work that uses allusions and intellectual games, to hide the real pain. And I kinda suspect it speaks to a lot of people in the same way. And I kinda suspect a lot of people aren't willing to admit this fact. The album has in my view become sanitized over the years, into this cute, clever, deep, work. But it is a poor example of this kind of work. And it was never meant to be to begin with. As I said at the top, it needs to be reconsidered. The common view is really safe and boring compared to what it really is: Brave. Emotionally naked. Disturbing. Often embarrassing. Noisy. Off putting. Singular. Great.