25 July 2008

Arts Award article - My Arts Hero

Jeff Mangum

Jeff Nigh Mangum is the musician best known for his band Neutral Milk Hotel. Jeff and his High School friends were the founding members of a group of musicians known as the ‘Elephant 6’ collective, who were obsessed with melodic pop songs, strongly influenced by The Beach Boys and The Beatles.

Jeff was born in 1970 and grew up in Ruston, Louisiana, along with other future members of Elephant 6. The collective gained momentum as the friends recorded and circulated tapes recorded on four-track recorders, the early forms of their records. Some of Jeff’s have been circulated on the internet, and they sound weirder and weirder the older they are. The other three members were Robert Schneider, who produced and performed on Mangum’s records, who is best known as the frontman of The Apples In Stereo; and Will Cullen Hart and Bill Doss, of The Olivia Tremor Control. The Elephant 6 members relocated to Athens, Georgia, in the mid-90s, and they have mostly stayed there ever since. The collective’s music was popular in American indie circles, particularly during the 1990s, making amazing indie-rock albums such as The Olivia Tremor Control’s ‘Dusk at Cubist Castle’, the ‘Major Organ and the Adding Machine’ project, and most famously, Neutral Milk Hotel’s ‘In The Aeroplane Over The Sea’ (‘Aeroplane’). The collective continues to produce music, though I tend to feel it’s reached a point where the experimentation that made them famous really makes their music more and more unlistenable. Other bands that had some relation to Athens or the collective have also represented Elephant 6, most successfully my favourite band, of Montreal, as well as Beirut, Elf Power, and A Hawk and A Hacksaw – all of whom are still enjoying success, particularly in North America.

Mangum’s music fits into the collective’s style, as his songs are essentially simple pop songs using straightforward chord structures, but he incorporates psychedelic elements such as noise, and at times near-incomprehensible lyrics. The most interesting thing about Mangum’s lyrics is trying to figure out what on earth he actually means when he sings his songs, for instance the song ‘Oh Sister’, the video for which is below.

Oh sister, don’t be afraid of me

I won’t be nailing you down in the nursery

Just like the rest of them did with those watery

Wandering fingers that slipped that were supposed to be

Glorious and fine

Oh sister, won’t you believe in me

I only wanted to be hard on your family

Here with you now in the zillionth infirmary

Your mother makes frantic and drunk calls from Germany

All of the time

Oh sister, sweet brown and beulahery

Milk from your blisters on your grandmother's jewellery

There in the parlour all naked in front of me

Watching the light from the cracks making archery

Animal designs

The verses have a remarkable recurring rhyme scheme that really sticks in your head. Jeff combines made up words, (‘Beulah’ was another Elephant 6 band), striking descriptions of the members of the family, and distorted sexual imagery; these themes are common in his lyrics. There is contrast between sensitivity and pain, and each verse sounds like a fragment of a dream – dreams being a huge part of his lyrics. Jeff states that,

“I have this song called ‘Ferris Wheel on Fire’, and in the dreams a lot of times I'll be walking around and there is this Ferris wheel in flames, and I'm on the ground walking through the crowd – a lot of the songs are influenced by my dreams.”

His lyrics tend to confuse people. You have to be really in tune with his style in order to understand what is going on and why he is singing these things. One of the things people tend to find quite repelling about ‘Aeroplane’ is ‘King of Carrot Flowers Part 2’. This is the bit where he yells “I love you Jesus Christ”… it’s often cited as the main thing you have to get past with the album, and it’s also been interpreted so many ways. Mangum isn’t religious, that’s for sure. Whether he just thought Jesus was a great role model, or whether he was using a different voice, or anything, it’s never really been explained. The liner notes state that

“Since this seems to confuse people I’d like to simply say that I mean what I sing although the theme of endless endless on this album is not based on any religion but more in the belief that all things seem to contain a white within them that I see as eternal”.

Admittedly, Jeff’s lyrics are enough to turn anyone pretentious. Still, this sort of sprawling prose is just what the album’s lyrics are about, jagged chunks of poignant emotion.

As for the music itself, Neutral Milk Hotel were always fond of horns, played by Scott Spillane, as well as using many instruments I’ve never heard of, (the lines notes of ‘Aeroplane’ list instruments including “wandering genie”, “zanzithophone”, and “one-note piano”). An example of this is the title song from ‘In The Aeroplane Over The Sea’.

There are lights in the clouds

Anna's ghost all around

Hear her voice as it's rolling and ringing through me

Soft and sweet

How the notes all bend and reach above the trees

The song is to some extent a testimony to the emotional power of music, a power that Mangum has mastered. He refers to “Anna’s ghost”, referencing Anne Frank, who appears in most of the songs on the album, and is described in the song ‘Holland 1945’ as “The only girl I’ve ever loved”. Mangum speculates visions of her resurrection; in ‘Oh Comely’ he laments “I wished I could save her in some sort of time machine”. His lyrics are written with the most blank honesty I’ve ever heard… the word ‘quixotic’ describes these feelings quite well. I had to look it up during my research, but it means he’s using all this romantic imagery to make up for the fact that he can’t really achieve any of his dreams. And that is the most striking thing about the album: beneath horns and Mangum’s warped, yelping voice, his bare emotion is transmitted through him and an acoustic guitar.

In fact, ‘Oh Comely’ was recorded in one single 8-minute take, with horns added afterwards. ‘Aeroplane’ is probably the most consistently brilliant album I’ve ever heard. The themes and stories in the songs fit perfectly – even with the instrumentals, and the song ‘King of Carrot Flowers Pt. 3’, which Mangum wrote about a decade earlier – the thing as a whole locks into one finished work of art, seeming to stem directly from one moment in this man’s life, every thought flowing around his head. This approach to the themes on the album has greatly influenced my own creative writing.

‘Aeroplane’ is universally regarded as Mangum’s magnum opus, and so his earlier album ‘On Avery Island’ is often overlooked. This album is mostly Jeff’s work, with Robert Schneider acting as a technical helper and producer. While the record isn’t as cohesive as ‘Aeroplane’, certain songs possess inarguably moving lyrics and similarly psychedelic, yet honest, lyrics. It’s more accessible in places, for instance the song ‘Gardenhead’ features a tune that could almost be described as catchy.

There are beads that wrap around your knees that crackle into the dark

Like a walk in the park like a hole in your head

Like the feeling you get when you realise you’re dead

This time

We ride rollercoasters into the ocean

We feel no emotion as we spiral down

To the world and I guess it’s worth your time

Cause some lives you live and some you leave behind

It gets hard to explain

The Gardenhead knows my name

Of course, it’s barely pop music, and some of Jeff’s lyrics are downright disturbing. For instance, there’s the snippet entitled ‘Goldaline’. This fragment works in so many musical contexts, one chopped-up verse that is recycled in several of Neutral Milk Hotel’s early works. It is most effective in its last incarnation, in ‘Oh Comely’, as the song effectively modulates into A minor, and Mangum shifts to the verse’s surreal vision of Siamese twins in a forest.

Goldaline my dear

We will fold and freeze together

Far away from here

There is sun and spring and green forever

But now we move to feel

For ourselves inside some stranger’s stomach

Place your body here

Let your skin begin to blend itself with mine…

It’s the monolithic verse of the album, the most striking and possibly most important. Although the Siamese twins are a new character, it harkens back to the imagery from another song, ‘Two-Headed Boy’, and in 8 lines it reflects the album’s many themes. Sexuality is represented in the gruesome line “Let your skin begin to blend itself with mine” – yet it also mirrors the possibly incestuous lyrics of ‘King of Carrot Flowers’. The twins huddle together awaiting the jaws of some terrible beast, if only to escape the coldness of life. Mangum’s spiritual views of death are also discussed in ‘Holland 1945’, describing a beautiful resurrection, and the twins, are freezing in this life, far from the “sun and spring and green” that other people feel. They yearn for the fulfilling warmth of death.

But it’s not all that grotesque. Despite all the death and decay, Mangum’s bare emotion is presented in a thoroughly beautiful way. The lyrics are inarguably repulsive, yet ‘Aeroplane’ is an album which has topped a ‘Best albums of the 90s’ by Magnet, and lingers in the top 10 of several others, including a 4th place with Pitchfork Media, who described it as, “an impossibly rich text that begs to be deciphered, yet continually evades any singular interpretation”, comparing the album to TS Eliot’s ‘The Wasteland’. It’s quite understandable if you’re feeling completely confused and repelled by the music you’ve heard in the YouTube videos. I was confused at first too. It latches onto you with threads and steadily begins to make sense. For me, it became the most incredible work of art I’ve ever witnessed, and I know that many people agree.

So why do I regard Mangum as a hero? He’s not changed the world at large. At the height of his career he had a nervous breakdown, (although he says “It was a very wonderful thing to have happen to me”), and retreated to obscurity, leaving many people to speculate about his whereabouts and personal health. The last Neutral Milk Hotel-related appearance was in 2000, under a pseudonym – ‘World of Wild Beards’ – in a pub in New Zealand, where he explained his absence, and how his presence at the show was because “We just wanted to get away from our new president”. Since then, he’s been dipping in and out of Elephant 6 projects, his contributions rarely going beyond ‘guest instrumentalist’, or ‘backing vocals’. In late 2007, he married Astra Taylor, a film-maker, and he still lives in Athens.

So, Mangum’s impact is not on a global scale. Those who heard his record generally adored it, and a significant, perhaps somewhat scary number of people are as obsessed with it as I am. His work has been a huge influence on the music of Bright Eyes, the Arcade Fire, and Cursive. He’s been described as a bit of a weirdo magnet. As Mike McGonigal wrote:

“I can recall one show, watching afterward as Neutral Milk Hotel's Jeff Mangum dealt with some guy who'd made, like, a magical sculpture depicting how great the band was, using his own chewed-up gum or something. Another cross-eyed girl with long hair held onto Jeff's forearms for 20 minutes, as she told him exactly how important his message was to the planet…”

While this might be a little excessive, I too must confessed unrestrained adoration for this man’s lyrics, to the point of idolisation. Mangum has expressed confusion and discomfort regarding all this attention, and the prospect of him recording more music for Neutral Milk Hotel is looking increasingly unlikely. But most fans are satisfied in his offering of the most hideous and beautiful music they’ve ever heard.

Thanks for reading! If you have feedback, please comment below. You could comment on my writing style, the best parts, if there's anything you feel I left out, or should have left out, or just give me general comments. If it inspired you to listen to more Neutral Milk Hotel, that would be awesome. Speaking of which, there's an excellent EP-length live show (Jeff Mangum solo, Live in San Francisco @ Aquarius Records) available on the Elephant 6 website, here.

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