I first heard Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea in December 2010. It was one of those‘wow’ moments, and I listened repeatedly, from the perfect lyric of adolescence of ‘King of Carrot Flowers’: “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 round your feet// And 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.” Through the desperate love song and memorial to Anne Frank of ‘Oh Comely’: “and will she remember me fifty years later? I wish I could save her in some sort of time machine …” To the final “two-headed boy, she is all that you need … don’t hate her when she gets up to leave.”
Which Jeff Mangum, the genius of NMH, does, audibly, at the end of the song, walking away from it all in 1999.
What I didn’t know was that just as I was listening for the first time to the album, long an ‘Indie classic’, Mangum was reemerging, curating festivals, and occasionally playing live. I watched him on youtube, singing live, and looking a little nonplussed as a thousand word-perfect fans fervently sang his complex and difficult songs back at him. What to do when you make a ‘perfect’ work of art, unnoticed at the time, and a dozen years later it’s fixed into a ‘classic’, every nuance memorised by the fans, but you, presumably, have moved on?
It made me think of another neglected album that later acquired legendary status: Love’s Forever Changes. Released in 1967, when Arthur Lee was 22, and played, by me and others, countless times after Love quickly broke up. It was thirty years before Lee teamed up with what was in effect a tribute band, to tour the album, recording Forever Changes in Concert, at the Festival Hall in London in 2003, and it’s very good indeed. How popular music soaks and colours us.