Review: Neutral Milk Hotel – “The Collected Works”

Among his many other talents, Jeff Mangum is a brilliant editor. The Neutral Milk Hotel front-man rather famously wrote many of his songs in the early- to late-1990s (much of them in Athens, GA) as epic tomes with New Testament-length verses. Later, he’d go back, revisiting each piece, and cutting out lines or guitar phrasings to his liking, then scrapping the rest, moving on without the unnecessary parts. On Neutral Milk Hotel’s finest LP, the 1998 swan song In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, this editing style lent the proceedings the feeling of a song cycle, of various pieces tied together with common threads. Aeroplane ends with “Two-Headed Boy Pt. 2,” whose closing refrains echo the opening stanzas of the record; we begin where we end and we end where we begin, he seems to say, an appropriate sentiment for a record, at least in part, inspired by the writings of Anne Frank.

The Collected Works of Neutral Milk Hotel, a new box set out on Merge Records, has the same touch of ingenious editing. Mirroring a 2011 box set released by the small-time, Mangum-manned operation Neutral Milk Hotel Records, the new set contains 54 songs – essentially, much of the band’s commercially available output. And, when listening to it, it’s hard not to notice those common threads. A 1990s field recording of “My Dream Girl Don’t Exist” cops lyrics and guitar phrasings from In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, which wouldn’t see the light of day for several years. “Oh Sister,” a circa-1995 tune from the post-“breakup” EP Ferris Wheel on Fire, hints in its structure, its repetition, even its song title, to Aeroplane centerpiece “Oh, Comely.” The two, it turns out, were written on the same day. There are two versions of “Little Birds,” one of the last songs Mangum wrote before walking away from the band at the height of its popularity around 1998 or 1999. There’s a studio demo from 1998 (billed in the 2011 set as “unfinished”) and a live take from the group’s storied 2014 reunion tour; comparing them yields gems for listeners’ ears.

Aside from these threads, the set is also great for charting Mangum’s evolution. The sequencing is seemingly counter-intuitive, with 1998’s Aeroplane coming first, followed by 1996’s On Avery Island and ending with early demos and much of what listeners consider the B material. (Mangum always had a way of making the B material A-level quality, though.) This sequencing seems to suggest Aeroplane is the highlight of the set, with the rest of the songs acting as a kind of foundation on which Mangum built. There are, however, great touches here. By placing the post-“breakup” Mangum solo set Live at Jittery Joe’s at the end, for example, it allows us to close with a brilliant rendering of “Oh, Comely,” arguably Mangum’s finest work. Simply stated: it works and works well.

It’s important to note: this is not the complete conversation. Missing from the boxed set are early Neutral Milk Hotel demos and outtakes, such as 1991’s Invent Yourself A Shortcake or 1992’s Beauty. Some of this material surfaces elsewhere in the catalog – “Gardenhead/Leave Me Alone,” from Beauty, listeners will notice, reappears in the track listing for On Avery Island, and that’s far from the only example. But leaving out those early experiments in sound – many of them audio letters between Mangum and friends in the Elephant 6 circle – does an injustice to that aforementioned foundation. If the Hype City soundtrack, from 1993, was formative, why not include its contents in the “collected works?” Why stop at Everything Is’ “Aunt Eggma Blowtorch?”

Digitally-speaking, the boxed set is really the first Mangum release of the streaming era – and there’s something grand to be said for that. Take the set’s 54 tracks and simply shuffle through them and you get a wonderful, kaleidoscopic vision of the workings of Mangum’s brain. Taken in one setting, it’s an unbelievable journey, and listeners will find themselves transfixed by Mangum’s scale-jumping lead vocals or the patterned strums of his acoustic guitar. The big downside to the set? Calling this a “collected” work implies Neutral Milk Hotel’s recorded output is entirely in the past tense. While most fans have accepted this eventuality, many had held out hope that the 2014 reunion tour would trigger something in Mangum, something magical and mystical, something getting him to return to the studio with new work. Oh, well. For now, at least, we’ve got a great companion: a 54-song love letter to Neutral Milk Hotel’s ardent fans. — Justin Vellucci, Spectrum Culture, March 4, 2023


About the author

Justin Vellucci is a staff writer for PopMatters, Spectrum Culture, and MusicTAP, a contributor to Pittsburgh Current, and a former staffer for Popdose, Punk Planet and Delusions of Adequacy. His music writing has appeared in national magazines such as American Songwriter, alt-pubs like The Brooklyn Rail, Pittsburgh CityPaper and San Diego CityBeat, blogs Swordfish, Punksburgh and Linoleum, and the Gannett magazine Jetty. He lives in Pittsburgh.