My older cousin was tired of me nagging him to download music for me, so one day, he decided it was time for me to learn Limewire like a big girl and become a law-breaking minor.
The first two songs I downloaded were Radio Disney favorites — “She Said” from now-Academy Award winner Brie Larson’s debut (and only) album, Finally Out of P.E., and “1985 (Explicit Version)” by Bowling for Soup. I learned that day that real musicians say the word “ass,” and also how to edit the mp3 file title to read “Clean Version” in case my parents stumbled upon it on our family computer.
And while there’s music you know you’d get in trouble for listening to, there’s also music that feels forbidden. Not because the songs were rife with racial epithets or over-the-top offensive slang; no, it’s actually the opposite. Songs that feel so intimate that even you shouldn’t be listening to them alone in the privacy of your own bedroom, headphones on, reverb surging through your body as you lie still on your back, in awe that you have access to the inner workings of an artist’s mind in this deep, excavating way. It’s music thats so unbelievably whole that you can’t comprehend how everyone hasn’t heard this yet, nor how this lush, visceral secret just exists out in the open for everyone to hear.
I found out about In the Aeroplane Over the Sea by Neutral Milk Hotel in 2011 when a Tumblr blog I followed called swayintothesunset reviewed it as part of her 365 album reviews in 365 days project. The album, which would quickly become my favorite of all time, came out in 1998, three years after I was born. Legend has it that after Aeroplane made it big on the indie circuits, lead singer and songwriter, Jeff Mangum, couldn’t handle the pressure and eventual deifying of himself and his creation. He soon became a recluse and the band hadn’t toured in more than a decade. Popular folklore says that Mangum played a final solo show somewhere in Georgia before retiring for good. As the story goes, one of the band’s trumpeters was in a room next door, playing the horn parts through the wall.
It’s hard to not want to believe a story like that; the mystique somehow contributes to the delicate danger of the band’s music. I was also very into the idea that I loved this band and this album that I would probably never get to hear played live — oh, what a tragic soul! I was born in the wrong generation! If only my parents had foreseen my teen obsession and carted a three year old me to a Neutral Milk Hotel concert when they had the chance!
At the time, I was very interested in concept albums — American Idiot by Green Day was a formative text, and Fast Times at Barrington High by the Academy Is… was my more recent obsession. When swayintothesunset’s review alluded that the album was inspired by The Diary of Anne Frank, I found a bootleg zip file in seconds, plugged in my headphones, and listened.
“And your mom would stick a fork right into daddy’s shoulder
And dad would throw the garbage all across the floor
As we would lay and learn what each other’s bodies were for.”
Within the first 45 seconds of “King of Carrot Flowers Pt. 1,” I felt a pain I could only describe as euphoric. I felt haunted by the perverse images that Mangum was describing, if not creating with his words, pressure escalating with the grittiness of his voice. I had never heard anything so imperfect yet so vibrant and full. As someone who had grown up in and out of choirs and piano lessons and vocal training, I never knew that it was possible to be moved by a vocalist who wasn’t technically hitting all the right notes. But every turn of phrase, every strange bellowing of a misplaced horn in the distance struck a chord within me, and I learned to listen to music more deeply, beyond just the lyrics, beyond just the performance, and into the layers upon layers of track and recording. Screeches and door slams and unidentifiable wails — I was captivated by what I could not recognize, and I have not stopped listening to the album since.
My freshman year of college, the impossible happened — Neutral Milk Hotel was going on tour, and playing two nights in Oakland. When advance tickets went on sale in October, none of my newly minted college friends wanted to commit to a concert in April, which is totally fair. I had yet to get truly drunk in front of these people, so I wouldn’t have trusted myself either.
About a month before the concert, I mentioned it in passing to someone at the newspaper, where I had just started as an arts & entertainment reporter. He said that he’d love to go if I could find tickets for him and his girlfriend in exchange for giving me a ride to the show. It took me all but two hours to hunt down three tickets to the show, paid in cash in broad daylight, to make all my phantom three-year-old dreams come true.
It was the first concert I had ever been to where no one had their phones or cameras out — per Mangum’s request. And after years of attending and reviewing shows and concerts and plays, this one is committed to memory. As the members of the band filed on staged, occupying stations for multiple instruments at a time, Mangum descended to center stage, drinking out of a mysterious unlabeled molasses-colored bottle. He looked at the crowd with a serious glare, as if he was daring anyone to move in his silence. Then, he began to strum vigorously, belting out the lyrics to his winding prose:
“When you were young
You were the king of carrot flowers
And how you built a tower tumbling through the trees
In holy rattlesnakes that fell all around your feet”
Standing at the barricade, I had the crowd singing at my back and the band performing above my head. I mouthed along the lyrics with everyone else, tentative and nervous, as I wasn’t sure how deeply other people loved the record. I had enjoyed their music in solitude, unsure of the proper way to behave. Was it safe to profess my love in public? Would I lose indie cred for revealing that I found out about the band through Tumblr?
But when “King of Carrot Flowers” dove into parts II and III, the crowd answered my mental quandary. I found myself bobbing along in the pit, screaming, “I love you, Jesus Christ! / Jesus Christ, I love you / Yes, I do!” along with the packed theater. If you took a close up shot of my face at that moment, you would’ve thought I was in the midst of a spiritual awakening at a Hillsong United concert. It was almost the same thing, I guess. Just a hell of a lot more secular.
I still listen to music the same way Neutral Milk Hotel taught me. Being able to search for depth in music — and all art for that matter — has helped deepen my understanding of the world as an artist and a critic. I listen to Aeroplane whenever I need to feel grounded in the unreality of creation, in the strangeness of existence, in those moments of peril that feel like perfection.
“How strange it is to be anything at all?”
Mangum famously asks in the album’s title track.
It’s somehow comforting to know that there are questions that can never be answered.