Those two great overgrown gardens of American mainstream pop, the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds and Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk, have had oddly different effects on their admirers. Looked at one way, the albums responsibly connect with old American idioms — the marching band, the parlor song — and also open the door to new reaches of sound. In another way, they give off the wrong message, burying the hard gem of songcraft under layers of bizarreness.
Jeff Mangum, who goes by the name of Neutral Milk Hotel with or without musical collaborators, was one of those seventies kids touched by Brian Wilson and Lindsey Buckingham. Unfortunately, Mangum went straight for the advanced course in aura and texture, skipping basic training in form and selfediting. The lyrics on In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, his second album, are fertile, heaping, onrushing; most of the music is scant and drab, with flat-footed rhythms and chord changes strictly out of the beginner’s folk songbook. Elsewhere, in “The King of Carrot Flowers Parts Two and Three,” the clattering drums, trombones and impasto of underwater guitar fuzz mask the absence of a decent melody.
Like others in the loose syndicate of bands with roots in Ruston, Louisiana, and known to fanzine-scourers as the Elephant Six collective, Mangum prizes the homemade aesthetic. Unlike his first record, On Avery Island, much of Aeroplane has only his acoustic guitar for accompaniment. He sings loudly, straining the limits of an affectless voice; his lyrics carry the innocent piety of the early Beats, with semireligious visions and a pre-electronic-age feel: medicines, Sunday shoes, holy rattlesnakes and the above-mentioned king of carrot flowers.
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Rock’s been crippled by narcissistic irony, and it needs re-greening by exactly Mangum’s type: naive transcendentalists who pop out of nowheresville. But don’t alert the MacArthur awards committee yet. For those not completely sold on its folk charm, Aeroplane is thin-blooded, woolgathering stuff.