Neutral Milk Hotel only made two studio albums, but the one that gave the band a cult following was its last. In The Aeroplane Over The Sea became a pop culture phenomenon. You likely know someone who was obsessed with this record—even Parks And Recreation’s notoriously apathetic April Ludgate’s “thing” was a huge Neutral Milk Hotel fan. It was unlike anything else released in 1998; who ever suspected that a concept album of sorts, with songs about Anne Frank and Jesus, would or could explode like In The Aeroplane did?
But all the adulation tends to overshadow its predecessor, 1996’s On Avery Island, which recently marked the 25th anniversary of its release. Neutral Milk Hotel’s first LP is just as brilliant as Aeroplane, but often gets neglected in the conversation about the band’s legacy. While Aeroplane thrives in its strangeness, On Avery Island hits hard because it’s more rooted in reality, possessing rich storytelling with which anyone can identify.
The story behind the genesis of On Avery Island feels apt, given the whimsy for which Neutral Milk Hotel is known. According to the band’s “Definitive Discography,” Jeff Mangum wrote the album while living in a closet at a friend’s haunted house in Denver, spooked by dreams of “these really beautiful women in really tacky fur coats drinking champagne and telling my friend that we should get the fuck out of their party because we were really pissing them off.” Mangum and his friend Robert Schneider from The Apples In Stereo began working on what turned out to be Neutral Milk Hotel’s debut record in 1994, taking nearly three years to finish. In the “Discography,” Mangum describes that “The whole album just blurs in a beautiful way to me, like a dream, because I guess my whole life the past three years has been geared towards the end which is the album itself. It’s sort of the culmination of the whole experience,” as he painstakingly tried to create an album he’d feel proud of.
On Avery Island’s lyrics feel notably angstier than Aeroplane’s, with an adolescent-like perception of the world, yet it’s more grounded in reality. Lyrically, Mangum looks back at his dynamics with his peers, whether it’s romantically or platonically. Mangum grew up very religious, and opener “Song Against Sex” is presented through the lens of someone wrestling with being taught that premarital sex is sinful, while feeling intense sexual desires. It’s seemingly written in part from the perspective of a young woman, and Mangum mentioned at a 1998 San Francisco show that the song was inspired by a friend.
But “Song Against Sex” also examines Magnum’s relationship with anything deemed sinful, detailing how being terrified of using drugs to ease his mind keeps him sober, and offers the warning, “But don’t take those pills your boyfriend gave you / You’re too wonderful to die.” Now the line brings to mind the “Nooo don’t kill yourself, your [sic] so sexy aha” meme, but it still appears to be coming from a sincere standpoint, a reminder that sins can have grave consequences. It’s an interesting song to hear nearly three decades later, especially in the context of the recent conservative panic over artists like Lil Nas X and Megan Thee Stallion’s overtly sexual lyrical content. The lyrics of “Song Against Sex” feel more like observation than a critique of sexual pleasure, with Mangum attempting to process his complicated feelings toward intimacy. Meanwhile, its upbeat instrumentality contrasts the lyrics; the joyous, bouncy tune introduces instruments that wouldn’t typically fit the genre, like trombone and xylophone. You can trace Neutral Milk Hotel’s sonic influence on Arcade Fire and similar major-league indie bands back to this song.
On Avery Island shines best when Mangum writes about his romantic dynamics. “Gardenhead/Leave Me Alone” is an underrated breakup song, as he writes about wanting to leave behind a failed relationship. It almost feels lyrically parallel to Liz Phair’s “Fuck And Run,” with Mangum offering the warning that he needs something substantial and stable, instead of falling for his former lover’s bullshit “twice in a row.” But the double-titled song also interweaves two stories at once. On the unofficial Neutral Milk Hotel demos album Beauty (consisting of songs Mangum put out on a cassette tape in 1992), Mangum explains that it’s “two songs made into one song,” written about two people, including one person he’d recently broken up with at the time of writing it. There’s something about the track that evokes a rollercoaster sensation; it has peaks and valleys, marked by Mangum’s enunciation, paired with the unorthodox combination of cymbals and trumpet.
Another standout is “Naomi,” written about Naomi Yang from the band Galaxie 500. It’s never been confirmed if Mangum actually had a relationship with her—in fact, Yang wrote that she found out about the song because “someone from Neutral Milk Hotel” handed her the LP and told her “Naomi” is about her, so it’s unlikely they actually dated. But it’s a vulnerable love song imagining their life together. Mangum details “taking” her dress and tasting her “shitty” perfume, lamenting that others have noticed her beauty and begging her not to leave him. He details Yang’s Cambridge strolls while studying at Harvard, wishing she knew the power of her appeal. It has the ’90s voyeuristic elements of the decade’s radio-friendly hits like Dave Matthews Band’s “Crash Into Me” without the corniness, and it’s one of Neutral Milk Hotel’s most accessible-sounding songs–the closest they’d ever get to making a pop song.
There’s even more yearning in “Where You’ll Find Me Now,” the sister track to “A Baby For Pree” (both have the same melody, but each tells a different story, with the latter being dedicated to Mangum’s friend who’d just had a child). “Where You’ll Find Me” is about unrequited love, with Mangum detailing his true feelings for a romantic interest while knowing they don’t feel the same way in return: “But I let you down / Swollen and small is where you’ll find me now / With that silver stripping off / From my tongue you’re tearing out / And you’ll never hear me talk.” And even while harboring intense feelings for this person, he returns to his apprehension over intercourse: “Tear into me, the scent of you sweating smells good to me / As long as we keep in our clothes.” It’s a mellow ballad, with suburban imagery of smoking in the park and adolescents hanging out in their cars. While Aeroplane feels more focused on imaginary worlds and convoluted metaphors, On Avery Island thrives when rooted in reality.
In addition to the record’s relatable lyrics rooted in relationship struggles, On Avery Island is just as sonically dynamic as Aeroplane; there’s plenty of experimentation on hand. “Marching Theme” is one of three instrumental tracks (the other being “Avery Island/April 1st”), but it’s the riskiest of the three. While “April 1st” is serene and joyous, working as an interlude for “Gardenhead/Leave Me Alone,” “Marching Theme” is heavily distorted, sounding unlike anything else on the album. Its psychedelic sound is rivaled by closing track “Pree-Sisters Swallowing A Donkey’s Eye,” a particularly eerie song; it could likely be mistaken for the score of an avant-garde horror movie and lasts nearly 14 minutes. Closing with “Pree-Sisters” feels like a reminder to fans that while Mangum’s capable of excelling at writing relatable indie rock songs, the band wouldn’t conform to being ordinary.
Even in its moments of oddness, On Avery Island still feels remarkably accessible compared to Aeroplane. Neutral Milk Hotel’s second album won fans over with its beautifully dark reminder of mortality told through complex metaphors contrasted with twee tunes. But On Avery Island thrives in combining everyday life with the band’s innate whimsy, hinting at the ingenuity that was to come in the band’s most popular record.