I’m going to go out on a limb here. The best album from the 1990s was not by Nirvana, or Radiohead, or My Bloody Valentine. Yes, all of those bands released masterpieces in that decade, albums that continue to be influential and will be listened to and appreciated for decades to come.
But the best album from the 1990s, at least in my humble opinion, was In the Aeroplane Over the Sea by Neutral Milk Hotel, an album that mixes highly evocative lyrics (inspired in part by the story of Anne Frank, of all things), impassioned singing, quirky instrumentation and fuzzy production to give the decade’s greatest masterpiece.
OK, I know that not everyone will agree with me on this. But many will. And I would contend that virtually any album that a decent-sized group of music lovers thinks is one of the greatest ever made is worth a listen — so check it out if you haven’t done so already.
After the Aeroplane album was released and a short tour was undertaken, Jeff Mangum grew disillusioned with his burgeoning fame and had a nervous breakdown. Not much was heard from him, literally, for about a decade, making him a bit like a modern-day Syd Barrett, who took things too close to the edge and didn’t make it back.
But then in the fall of 2011, out of the blue, Mangum toured the East Coast. I’ll admit that I looked into a flight to Boston to catch a show, but the expense spooked me. So I was overjoyed when I found out he would be playing shows in California while in the area for his appearances at this year’s Coachella Valley Music and Arts Annual Festival. On Monday night, I caught him at the regal Orpheum Theatre in Los Angeles.
Mangum came out to rapturous applause from a house full of eager fans, and began the night at the end, that is, the last song off the Aeroplane album, “Two-Headed Boy Pt. Two.” Wow! It was immediately clear that this was going to be a magical night, with Mangum’s voice sounding strong and confident.
Next up was my personal favorite song by Neutral Milk Hotel, “Holland, 1945,” here without the drums and fuzz of the recorded version, but with no loss of intensity as Mangum strummed furiously on his acoustic guitar. This is a response to Anne Frank’s death, and has some amazing lyrics that, at Mangum’s encouragement, were belted out by the audience, like: “Now she’s a little boy in Spain / Playing pianos filled with flames / On empty rings around the sun / All sing to say my dream has come.”
Over the course of the evening, Mangum played nearly all of the Aeroplane album, at appropriate times tastefully and masterfully accompanied by others, including Scott Spillane and Laura Carter, who appeared on the album. Other highlights were the three parts of “The King of Carrot Flowers,” the unplugged-but-still-powerful “Ghost,” a sped-up and possessed “Two-Headed Boy” that segued dramatically into the funereal instrumental “The Fool” featuring horns, drum, tambourine and accordion, and the show closer “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea” that had couples embracing as they sang along.
Mangum also took the opportunity to showcase his lesser-known but also wonderful songs that are not on the Aeroplane album, such as “Song Against Sex” and “Little Birds,” the latter of which he described as “the song that kind of did my head in a bit,” which led to a deafening silence until he told us that it was OK to laugh.
Fortunately, Mangum’s head seems to be back in the right place, and one hopes that he can finally enjoy being, rightly, in the spotlight. Happily, this seemed to be the case, particularly as the evening progressed.
Bravo to Jeff Mangum, a rare talent whose performance Monday night truly lived up to the lofty heights of his masterpiece, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea.
Two-Headed Boy Pt. 2
A Baby for Pree
True Love Will Find You in the End (Daniel Johnston cover)
The King of Carrot Flowers Pt. 1
The King of Carrot Flowers, Parts Two & Three
Song Against Sex
In the Aeroplane Over the Sea
— Noozhawk contributing writer Jeff Moehlis is a professor of mechanical engineering at UCSB. Upcoming show recommendations, advice from musicians, interviews and more are available on his Web site, music-illuminati.com.