Neutral Milk Hotel and The Beauty In Imperfection
Before I get swallowed up by the crowd of salivating hipsters, let me just say this up front: this is not about In The Aeroplane Over The Sea — it’s about the gritty, unapologetic mess of an album released by the same band two years before that. On Avery Island. The one that got left behind in the wake of its younger sibling’s success.
I was born too late to ever get sucked into the 90’s indie subculture and born way to early to be included in the Millennial group. So without much direction, I wondered from album to album and band to band with no regard given to when they were formed and how long ago member x died. It was a magical experienced, especially during my high school years. I was exposed to a weird concoction of 90's alt rock and early 70's jazz , so I had a rather unique idea of music from a young age. To me, alternative rock was mostly just pop music with heavy guitars and lots of throaty singing, emotional singing (which rocks) and jazz was a little more…drastic.
All this meant that I was usually over critical of any band that came my way. Too much structure meant they were boring, too little meant they were self-indulgent. So, naturally, I settled for the stuff in between. Radiohead, Deerhoof and the rest of the weirdos, coupled with a bit of Thelonious Monk and a lot of Weather Report. And then, of course, yours truly, Neutral Milk Hotel.
A friend of mine kept insisting that I check out In An Aeroplane… , so I did and I ended up listening to it for at least three weeks, non-stop. So after I wore the novelty down, I went in search of something similar. I settled on On Avery Island and it stopped me dead in my tracks. The album opens with the low, oscillating whirl of an overdriven guitar and descends into a melodic maelstrom of open chords, blurring horns and detuned synths. Underneath all that, though, there was an album stuffed with the same poignant songwriting Jeff Mangum had become known for. Sex, isolation, stalking and drugs dominated most of the album, either in the form of blatant, unapologetic one liners or abstruse metaphors that were probably better left unsolved. So for weeks I sat around trying to make sense of this mess.
I listened to a lot of there music as well, some almost equally as strange, but there was something about the audacity of an album like On Avery Island was unmatched. It wasn’t too crude to be music or too arty to be enjoyable. It was in that perfect space in between madness and vapidness. A place I could go when I got sick of perfectly timed choruses and jelly mold guitar solos. Through all this, they made one thing clear: beauty wasn’t always about precision and streamlined production. So what if the mic was too low in that one song and the distortion on the acoustic was clipping the amp? The result was perfect in it’s own way.
Dare I make the argument that modern music is just a little too well produced? In a world where you can smooth out cracking voices and correct a drummers timing with the click of a mouse, we’re slowly losing the human aspect of music. Believe me when I say, I’m not advocating for a lo-fi revolution. All I want is pure, untouched human creativity. Whether or not the singer is just a little bit hungover or the guitars are a bit loud doesn’t matter. It’s still beautiful in it’s own way.
I think Brian Molko from Placebo said it well enough, “…beauty exists in places that aren’t necessarily pretty.”