Monthly Archives: August 2014

25 Masterworks: Neutral Milk Hotel – In the Aeroplane Over the Sea

My Spin on Masterworks: 7 of 25

Neutral Milk Hotel

In the Aeroplane Over the Sea

Merge, 1998

Neutral Milk Hotel - In the Aeroplane Over the SeaLike so many others, I never thought I’d get to see Neutral Milk Hotel perform live. This year, I was so incredibly lucky that I got to see them twice: once at Camden Roundhouse on the day of my final university exam, and again during their Sunday night headline slot at Green Man Festival in Wales. The sound quality was much stronger the first time around, but on both occasions, the rapturous energy of the crowds and the sheer power of seeing the mythical indie heroes in the flesh elevated both gigs to quasi-spiritual experiences.

Seriously, it’s hard to imagine performances as earnestly-attended as Neutral Milk Hotel’s. At Green Man, a woman several feet away from me wept into her friend’s shoulder for the entirety of ‘Two-Headed Boy Pt. Two’. In the Roundhouse, somebody just behind me tried taking a photograph of the unfolding gig, and was instantly subjected to screams of disdain from everybody in his immediate vicinity. If there is any music icon whose requests for audio-visual privacy will be upheld, it’s Jeff Mangum. The following his band’s music has developed over the last quarter-decade borders on obsessive.

There is an aura to Neutral Milk Hotel: an aura that cannot be easily defined, but is recognised by every single listener who has ever been touched by the band’s music. There are the rumours and the backstories, of course, which have contributed to the group’s status. Yet by themselves, these tales would only be enough to make them a mere curiosity, rather than longstanding cult heroes. What truly matters is the weight of their music, and their second (and perhaps final) album is hallowed not only for its mystery.

In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is a peerless record. Every second vibrates with a terrible, indefinable importance, whether dispensed through the sonic turbulence of the music, or Mangum’s unforgettable lyrics. Mangum is a songwriter whose work demands the utmost attention of its listeners, dispelling any notions of music-as-background-noise as he chants “I love you Jesus Christ!”, or counts in the explosively fuzzy ruckus of ‘Holland, 1945’. His nasal, frequently strained voice is enchanting, vulnerable, but also frightening; the portents of a man haunted by visions, and possessed by an achingly sad knowledge of humanity’s darkest truths.

Juxtaposing his eulogies of the soul are the carnival-esque blasts of Neutral Milk Hotel’s tumultuous noise. It sounds triumphant, but it’s the kind of triumph that fits somewhere between a circus celebration and a funeral procession driven by hysteria. Scott

Neutral Milk Hotel (clockwise from top left: Julian Koster, Scott Spillane, Jeremy Barnes, Jeff Mangum).  (photo: allstonpudding.com)

Neutral Milk Hotel (clockwise from top left: Julian Koster, Scott Spillane, Jeremy Barnes, Jeff Mangum). (photo: allstonpudding.com)

Spillane’s horn arrangements can rouse dread just as easily as they can joy, and Julian Koster’s singing saws replicate ghosts wailing through the fabric of Mangum’s singing. Somehow the whole pageantry remains catchy and memorable throughout, the tumbling music coalescing into a perfectly-formed mass which defies clear contours.

Trying to unpick every riddle in the album is impossible. They slot together with a crazed logic which makes sense only because Mangum sounds so invested in – and transformed by – his subject matter. We believe his announcements make sense in some capacity, and there are threads of understanding that can be unravelled, but otherwise, we place our trust completely in his surreal, sometimes grotesque descriptions. All we can base our estimations in is that Mangum’s nuances always seem to return to the big headings of birth and death, and the splinters of beauty and tragedy that lie between both. Tellingly, the album’s title is taken from the following key lyric:

And one day we will die / And our ashes will fly / From the aeroplane over the sea

But for now we are young / Let us lay in the sun / And count every beautiful thing we can see.

Such lyrics are powerful on the page, but Mangum’s voice takes them further, raising them from beautiful to utterly indelible, his impassioned vocals able to transfix from the first note. And for all its jumbled wordplay, there’s no sense of anything being left unsaid on this album. The world it creates is complete and unyielding, leaving its listeners’ heads brimming with vivid portraits of scenes and feelings. Sitting down, tuning in and really listening to it is akin to examining a world within a snowglobe, forever preserved in its own sad, strange little bubble (perhaps not unlike the two-headed boy).

I don’t think I’ll ever be able to articulate all the things that I think and feel about In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. All I can do is keep listening, and keep trying to solve Mangum’s neverending mystery. I shake the snowglobe, and let the emotions and puzzles swirl around like lost ghosts. The answers linger just out of reach, but the unforgettable imagery makes these scenes feel alarmingly authentic, as if we have come close to finding some miraculous, terrible knowledge.

Everything contained within In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is real, because we find truth in it. We find truth, comfort, and sorrow in this landscape of grieving families, mountaintops stained with semen, and one particular girl who was born in a bottle rocket, and buried alive in 1945.

In the Aeroplane Over the Sea
1 – The King of Carrot Flowers Pt. One
2 – The King of Carrot Flowers Pts. Two & Three
3 – In the Aeroplane Over the Sea
4 – Two-Headed Boy
5 – The Fool
6 – Holland, 1945
7 – Communist Daughter
8 – Oh Comely
9 – Ghost
10 – The Penny Arcade in California
11 – Two-Headed Boy Pt. Two
 

Note: I’d like to thank Jess from So What Now? for featuring a link to my live review in her own wonderful article. The network of NMH fans professing their love for the group is always inspiring to read, and makes the band’s return feel like an experience shared between friends. Thanks!

30/08/2014

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25 Masterworks: David Bowie – Low

My Spin on Masterworks: 6 of 25

David Bowie

Low

RCA, 1977

David Bowie - LowIn 1975, David Bowie’s skyrocketing star had reached its zenith, but the man himself was approaching physical and emotional overload. Nutritionally malnourished and reeling from a snowballing cocaine addiction, Bowie’s descent into the Thin White Duke persona of the Station to Station years was tearing apart both mind and body. While his projects continued to arouse acclaim on both sides of the Atlantic, Bowie was transforming into the same vampiric presence he flaunted during live outings: a skeletal, paranoid figure gradually withdrawing into his own psyche. After completing his 1976 White Light tour, Bowie fled to deepest Europe in order to escape his demons, accompanied by Iggy Pop, Coco Schwab, and eventually, his creative personnel.

After several months of soaking up the vibrant nightlife of the German capital, the teams settled in Hansa to undertake recording duties for Iggy Pop’s seminal The Idiot, but it was only after relocating to France’s Château d’Hérouville that the bulk of Bowie’s eleventh album was cut. Amid bitter divorce proceedings, the trials of kicking his drug habit, and cutting himself off from the world in which he’d been made a star, Bowie tortuously began work on new material. Almost exactly a year after the release of Station to Station on RCA, Low arrived; an album teeming with ghosts, yet ghosts which had been wrangled into something truly transcendental.

Whereas Station to Station shimmered into view through a fog of coke powder, Low awakens with the sound of a shambling engine clanking to infernal life. The crazed, stuttering thunder of ‘Speed of Life’ immediately signals a new departure for Bowie, its bold and brazen atmosphere defying lyrics as it leads the march into 38 minutes of tormented, confused, but ultimately magical noise. As with its parent album, the sonic tone of ‘Speed of Life’ is unsettling yet intoxicating, immeasurably enriched by Tony Visconti’s fizzing production; the biggest talking point of which is the Eventide Harmoniser, which worked to pitch-shift Bowie’s caterwauling and gave Dennis Davis’ gated snare drum its signature bite. It was the pioneering of such techniques which established the groundwork for the 1980s to follow, with Brian Eno’s creative assistance inspiring Bowie himself to push the envelope even further on subsequent releases.

Much of the discourse surrounding Low is mired in the tired fact that it’s a record of two distinguished halves: the “song”-oriented Side A, and the ghostly ambience of Side B. While this may be the simplest means of defining how these eleven tracks are sequenced, their chronology is more interesting to pore over when one considers them in a single sitting. While the jagged squalls of ‘Speed of Life’ are a far cry from the ashen desolation of ‘Subterraneans’, Low somehow shifts from one extreme to the other with electrifying kineticism, sounding disjointed but never messy. It’s the sound of a musical mind collapsing and expanding simultaneously, synthesising everything from funk-rock to art-pop to choral ambience.

Shortly following the album’s release, Bowie summarised his thought process once he had settled in Europe. “It was like, ‘Isn’t it great being on your own? Let’s just pull down the blinds and fuck ’em all.’ Berlin has the strange ability to make you write only the important things. Anything else, you don’t mention – and in the end you produce Low.” The important things in this instance are confined to a mere five tracks, wherein Bowie articulates them into authentic language, and even these are fragmentary, cryptic. The remainder plays out in sound itself, where emotion bleeds through the icy synthesisers and walloping drum patterns like a heart threatening to burst through a ribcage.

Perhaps due to this more reserved aesthetic, on first listen, parts of Low sound skewed to the point of bewilderment, but this mood is one of despair veiled beneath the eccentricities of the experimentation. The jaunty ‘Sound and Vision’ is a paean to self-imposed exile, the sound of Bowie drawing those blinds and grappling with a crippling case of writer’s block. The awkward drama of ‘Be My Wife’ is stuffed with desperate, childlike pleas for companionship, and the stuttering ‘What in the World’ and ‘Breaking Glass’ both document attempts at human reconnection, through entirely disconnected means. Both find Bowie attempting to slur his way into coherent communication, but failing to grasp a humane mode of transmission. “I’m in the mood for your love!” he wails repeatedly in the former, staggering through a universe which he can seemingly no longer traverse with any semblance of charm or tact.

The opening and closing portents of Low are particularly telling. ‘Breaking Glass’ proffers an image of the Thin White Duke’s glacial conduct crumbling into psychotic mania. The snowblind sheen of Bowie’s mid-70s endeavours is shattered into a mosaic of breaking glass, spilled secrets, and dishevelled, burnt-out guitars which sting with all the ferocity of the simultaneous British punk explosion. And then, depending on how one chooses to decipher the warbles across ‘Warszawa’ and ‘Subterraneans’, the final lyric on the album arrives barely halfway through Low’s runtime: “sometimes you get so lonely”. It’s a perfect ellipsis on which to leave listeners dangling as Bowie takes off with the achingly fragile ‘A New Career in a New Town’, before the sheer majesty of ‘Warszawa’ descends to close off any chance of returning to poppier terrain. Here is real horror, real anguish, real history as channelled through Bowie’s awestruck vision of Cold War Europe: a landscape as ravaged and broken as the musician’s own body during the period.

There really is so much to dissect about Low, from its backstory to its critical reception, its influence on Bowie’s trajectory as well as the development of synth-pop as a whole. It’s wired, it’s humorous, it’s mind-bogglingly inventive and forward-thinking. But Low is also emblematic of a terrifying, isolated odyssey into the abyss. Bowie may have been well and truly fucked when making Station to Station, but it’s Low which plumbs far greater depths of desolation. In 2001, Bowie himself commented on the creative process in an interview with Uncut’s Rob Hughes and Stephen Dalton. “It was a dangerous period for me,” he admitted. “Overall, I get a sense of real optimism through the veils of despair from Low. I can hear myself struggling to get well.” True, escaping to Berlin did allow Bowie time to heal, but the word “struggle” is crucial here.

Low is an album of retreat: Bowie’s retreat from the cataclysmic pressure of Western expectations, his retreat from conventional methods of songwriting, and a retreat from the demons of his own making. It could almost be considered as a retreat from humanity itself, but beneath its icy exterior, this music burns with the heat of terribly vivid emotions, too powerful to be articulated through traditional means. Low served to be the final nail in the coffin of Ziggy Stardust – as perhaps reflected on its album sleeve, Bowie had left his past behind, and he wasn’t looking back.

Low
1 – Speed of Life
2 – Breaking Glass
3 – What in the World
4 – Sound and Vision
5 – Always Crashing in the Same Car
6 – Be My Wife
7 – A New Career in a New Town
8 – Warszawa
9 – Art Decade
10 – Weeping Wall
11 – Subterraneans

01/08/2014