Just finished up a paper I mentioned I was writing last week, analyzing sexual imagery in the writing of Jeff Mangum. I feel a little unsure about all of it — I think I oversimplify, and how could I do the work justice in 2000 words? And I have a weak conclusion. And it’s shorter than it’s supposed to be, which my papers always, always are. Oh well, at least it’s done, and at least I finally got the chance to write about Mangum, who is one of my absolute favorite artists. I’d love to do a much, much bigger paper sometime, like a book really, exploring all the recurring images, the connections between the songs, trying to figure out who’s who. Maybe that would be better as a sort of mural/map than a paper.
Anyway, any other Neutral Milk Hotel fans passing through here might enjoy this. Here it is:
There is a singular magic in the lyrical work of Jeff Mangum, the central force of the now-defunct band Neutral Milk Hotel. The songs are lovely in their odd and overflowing musical arrangements — the work of the band’s other members, Jeremy Barnes, Julian Koster, Scott Spillane, and often others, including Laura Carter and Robert Schneider — and in Mangum’s haunting, phantasmic lines. The most striking quality of the words is their complete harmonizing of the grotesque and the beautiful, the winsome and the profane. Mangum is showing us the terrible and the splendid in the same glance, a world that is fallen, ruined, and full of pain — and overwhelmingly beautiful, anyway.
This is most apparent in Mangum’s many complex, conflicted references to sexuality. Throughout On Avery Island, In The Aeroplane Over The Sea, and various live recordings, Mangum’s mentions of sex are both tender and disturbing. He has found something beautiful in the more fraught encounters, and something revolting in the more mundane ones. The allusions to sex convey both disgust and desire, and both pain and joy.
Jeff Mangum’s unusual approach to sexual imagery begins in the first song of Neutral Milk Hotel’s first album, On Avery Island (Merge Records, 1996). Track one is called “Song Against Sex” — an upbeat number that nonetheless delivers a barrage of disconcerting images. This is one piece in which Mangum finds something grotesque in the commonplace. The song opens with “a dead and hanging man,” who says “Oh boy, you are so pretty.” Mangum continues: “and when I finally kissed him, the whole world began to ring . . . and I knew the world was over.” The kiss, and the feeling of “blushing blood [running] through [his] cheeks,” is immediately followed by an apocalypse, complete with “fires that were reaching up to the . . . tops of trees.” Later in the song, Mangum exclaims, “Don’t take those pills your boyfriend gave you / you’re too wonderful to die.” He also asks: “Why should I lay here naked / when it’s just too far away / from anything we could call loving?” He then offers to “sleep out in the gutter,” and explains that “with a match that’s mean and some gasoline / you won’t see me anymore.”
Here, violence and affection are consistently placed side by side: first, with the kiss followed by catastrophe, and later, with a sexual encounter followed by violent suicide. In the earlier reference to suicide, the speaker urges someone not to kill herself with the pills she received from her lover. Clearly, there is a recurring, problematic dynamic occurring around sexual situations — after all, the song is called “Song Against Sex.” Mangum is exposing something objectionable in average, unremarkable encounters — something destructive. Both instances of sexual interaction are followed by fiery destruction, but there is no vengeful God evident in the picture. Rather, the pain is self-inflicted; as the narrator says, he is “always heading towards mass suicide.”
Similarly conflicted references appear throughout the album. In track four, “A Baby For Pree,” Mangum’s tone turns tender. He croons that “wonderfully wet / she will get / until she’s soaked inside her clothes.” He continues that “there is no sorry to be sorry for / for a roll around the floor.” These images are closer to other writers’ depictions of sex: sensuous and sympathetic. Mangum turns the scene on its head a breath later, though, when he mentions “the day it came to pour / all her babies across the bathroom floor.” This is upsetting, even grotesque, and might be contrary enough to the earlier images to undo them, if it weren’t for the way Mangum sings: with all the heady bliss of the earlier lines. The graphic miscarriage is, in this song, part and parcel of the lovemaking that preceded it. Mangum is showing us something beautiful in a disturbing and unusual narrative.
In “Naomi,” track eleven of On Avery Island, Mangum mentions that “one billion angels could come and hold her down / they could hold her down until she shines.” In the same song on Live At Jittery Joe’s (Orange Twin, 2001), however, the second line is “they could hold her down until she cries” — a response more congruent with being held down by a billion beings. This is image may or may not be sexual; either way, it shows some kind of violence, perpetrated by angels — a true blending of evil and good.
A similar image to this one is offered in the opening lines of “Oh Sister,” an unreleased track recorded at a 1996 show at Aquarius Records. The first stanza is, “Oh sister, don’t be afraid of me / I won’t be nailing you down in the nursery / just like the rest of them did with those watery / wandering fingers of spit that were supposed to be / glorious and fine.” This is a tender plea — “sister, don’t be afraid of me” — followed immediately by the description of something violent and frightening. Throughout this song, Mangum describes a strange, sometimes scary, sexuality, yet his focus is loving and nostalgic.
“Oh Sister” is addressed to Rose Wallace Goldaline, a character who also makes an appearance in “Oh Comely,” on In The Aeroplane Over The Sea. In “Oh Sister,” the speaker describes being “here with [her] now in this zillionth infirmary / and mother makes frantic and drunk call from Germany” — suggesting the song may be set in some World War II era hide-out, given the references to Anne Frank throughout Aeroplane, and the fact that this song shares many lines in common with Aeroplane tracks. Applying the logic of Aeroplane to “Oh Sister” makes even more sense considering rumors that the song was slated to be track five on that album, where an instrumental called “The Fool” ended up instead.
Through this lens, all the lyrics cast a darker light, upsetting for their implied context if not for anything explicitly stated. The lines “there in the parlor all naked in front of me / watching the lights from the cracks / making archery animal designs” — strikingly similar to a line from “Two-Headed Boy” (track four on Aeroplane), “in the parlor with a moon across her face” — further suggest being in hiding: what kind of parlor is lit only by what can shine through jagged cracks?
Another commonality between “Oh Sister” and the Aeroplane songs is the implication of a familial relationship between lovers. The speaker refers to Rose Wallace Goldaline as “sister,” and mentions not “my mother” or “your mother” but simply “mother.” If one chooses to read “Oh Sister” and songs such as “The King of Carrot Flowers Part 1” (track one on Aeroplane) as incestuous, the songs contain yet another disturbing detail that Mangum manages to make beautiful. Alternatively, the familial language could be metaphorical, or could be a literal account of incredible closeness between unrelated people who end up like siblings due to circumstance — as in the friendship that arose between Anne Frank and Peter van Pels, the teenage boy who was in hiding with her.
The intimate language of “The King of Carrot Flowers Part 1” begins in this first few lines, which recount that “when you were young / you were the king of carrot flowers,” with the sureness of someone who was there, who witnessed this youth. The song continues: “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” — a turbulent home life combined with a sweet description of sexual awakening. This only intensifies as Mangum sings “from above you how I sank into your soul / into that secret place where no one dares to go / and your mom would drink until she was no longer speaking / and dad would dream of all the different ways to die.” This song, perhaps most out of Mangum’s canon, paints a loving picture of a conflicted situation, some sweet and beautiful things existing in and throughout a gruesome context — Mangum treats the adults’ alcoholism, depression, and violence with same same tenderness as the children’s young love.
This theme continues throughout In The Aeroplane Over The Sea, in nearly every song. In track four, “Two-Headed Boy,” the most lovely and delicate image is also the most disturbing: “in the dark, we will take off our clothes / and they’ll be placing fingers through the notches in your spine.” Mangum calls these lines urgently. Are the characters undressing in a darkened bedroom, or at the hands of war criminals? Is this a scene of sex or a scene of death? It’s impossible to know, because of Mangum’s frequently identical treatment of the beautiful and the horrifying. His voice cracks with emotion; he appears to be equally overwhelmed by both. Songs such as “Communist Daughter” and “Oh Comely” are filled with similarly powerful and conflicted images.
The final track of Aeroplane — and, apparently, of Neutral Milk Hotel’s career — is “Two-Headed Boy Part Two,” a lonesome, melancholy song, which also appears on Live at Jittery Joe’s. It, more than any other song, is very different in its Jittery Joe’s incarnation, an unedited version recorded before Aeroplane came out. The line “sister please with those wings in your spine” was changed to “blister please . . .” for Aeroplane, and “1940 and 5 as we weep” changed to “for the rest of your life” followed by something indecipherable — apparently an attempt to mask one of the sources of inspiration for the song, the diary of Anne Frank.
The first sexual image in the song is heartbreakingly sad: “in my dreams you’re alive and you’re crying / move your mouth into mine, soft and sweet.” The second is somewhat strange; on Jittery Joe’s, “I’m still wanting my tongue on your cheek,” and on Aeroplane, “I’m still wanting my face on your cheek.” This change, unlike the others, makes the song seem more — not less — related to Anne Frank. That image, face against cheek as the height of closeness, is one that Frank used several times in her diary: “I can still feel his beautiful eyes gazing at me and his cool, soft cheek against mine” (Frank 166).
Ultimately, Jeff Mangum has done more than tell us that the world is a place of both unbearable suffering and incomprehensible joy: he has proven it. With In The Aeroplane Over The Sea, Mangum took the story of Anne Frank — a story of horrible injustice, that makes everyone wish for “some sort of time machine” as Mangum does in “Oh Comely” — and transformed it into something incredibly beautiful.
Frank, Anne. The Diary of a Young Girl: The Definitive Edition. Ed. Otto Frank and Mirjam Pressler. Trans. Susan Massotty. New York: Anchor Books, 1996
In The Aeroplane Over The Sea. Neutral Milk Hotel. Merge Records, 1998
Live at Jittery Joe’s. Jeff Mangum. Orange Twin Records, 2001
Live at Aquarius Records. Jeff Mangum. 1996
On Avery Island. Neutral Milk Hotel. Merge Records, 1998
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