Like most albums I pursue in curiosity and interest these days, I pursued this magnum opus from Netural Milk Hotel by reading Pitchfork Media’s list of the Best Albums of the 90’s. It was high up there, and I was completely oblivious to it prior, so I listened to it at work. If it’s ranked number 4, it must be one hell of an album, right? Upon first listen, I was not immediately impressed. Now I realize that it works best in enclosed spaces, like a tiny and dimly lit room. Considering lead songwriter Jeff Mangum wrote songs in a supposedly haunted closet, it makes perfect sense. It’s the subtleties that separate good albums from great brands making the best ones .
I’m listening to it now in my new headphones, and even though I had played it all the way through at least 3 times at work, I didn’t realize until now just how much I underestimated this album. I looked up the band, particularly for stories about Jeff Mangum writing bits from their first album in a haunted closet (which would explain its claustrophobic appeal. By the way, what entity would haunt a closet?), and the consequences of sudden fame eventually led Mangum into a nervous breakdown. What is it about art from unstable people that can attract acclaim? No doubt they perceive the world in a unique way, but how many of these people can make an album like this that sounds stable and traditional, but rapidly unravels and sounds exactly like the product of sessions in a haunted closet?
To offer some idea what it sounds like, I’d say there are Nick Drake elements mixed with the immediacy of Pavement. Folk rock, no doubt, but also has guitars blasted with distortion, an appreciated calling card of the 90’s. There’s also a Wes Anderson quirky quality about it with its use of horns, trumpets, accordions, and even bagpipes. Even the album cover nods to future Wes Anderson projects. But as much praise I can offer for the songwriting, lyrics, and artwork, what is it about Mangum’s yelling that I find difficult to grow into? No doubt he’s singing heavy subjects like Anne Frank and Jesus on “Holland, 1945” and “The King of Carrot Flowers, Pt. 2 and 3” respectively. The centerpiece, “Oh Comely” is a stream of conscience lyric that is sung in Mangum’s yell that threatens to go out of tune. Stream of consciousness seems to be prevalent in the album and it’s vital to the imaginative quality of his string of words. But still, what is it with his voice that I’m not accustomed to? I doubt it’s a voice that is meant to evoke happiness in the first place.
Nevertheless, the music like this deserves to outshine any flaw people like me perceive in this piece. It has a quality of indie bands I didn’t entirely achieve through bands like Pavement or Arcade Fire. Thank goodness for review sites like Pitchfork who offer not your run-of-the-mill, standard ‘best of’ mainstream albums consistently while Pitchfork recognizes this as one of the best albums of all time. I understand why mainstream would shun something like this, but if you’re thinking that I am coming across as some young emo/hipster, you’re missing my point: I love any and all music that can offer me a journey into another mind that doesn’t necessarily offer an accessible sound or relies on a specific gimmick. I devour albums like this when I find them. I’m off to go hunting again.
Overall Impression: 8/10