Nathan Jolly

200 Sad Songs: #167 Neutral Milk Hotel – The king of carrot flowers Pt 1 (1998)

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Image: Nathan Jolly

I have no idea what the title of this song means, or indeed the point of it, but I know how it feels. Claustrophobic. Disquieting. Brilliant.

 

 

 

In the aeroplane over the sea is one of the finest records ever made, an outstanding piece of outsider art made by a regular collective of contributors circling around Jeff Mangum’s singular vision, a vision that has seen him since spun off as some kind of reclusive genius, which he may very well be.

Aeroplane cares little for the conventions of time or place – it is an insular backwater town in anywhere USA, repeatedly wrapped over the knuckles with Jesus and hell until fear becomes the default setting. It is Nazi Germany, and Holland, 1945, a man mourning a child across oceans and generations; a child who was murdered decades before he was born, but who can still speak to him. It is also a touring Victorian freak show with exhibits and vans rolling over hills in an England that wore bowler hats and bow-ties while human sewerage flooded openly in the streets and children worked in factories. It’s about ghosts and graves, and the sheer accidental beauty of existence. Simply put: there isn’t another record like it.


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Part of the album’s allure is that he never followed it up. A short burst of low-key touring supported the album’s release, and then Mangum disappeared, declining all interviews, holing up in his house in Athens, Georgia, stockpiling rice in fear of Y2K, and sadly realising that the transformative power of music didn’t work as well as he’d like.

“I went through a period, after Aeroplane, when a lot of the basic assumptions I held about reality started crumbling,” he told Pitchfork in 2002, his only post-Aeroplane interview. “I guess I had this idea that if we all created our dream we could live happily ever after. So when so many of our dreams had come true and yet I still saw that so many of my friends were in a lot of pain…I saw their pain from a different perspective and realised that I can’t just sing my way out of all this suffering.” Maybe not, but it sounds amazing when he tries.

He probably will never make a follow up album, and he probably shouldn’t. At any rate, it’s irrelevant because the people, the place in time and all the colliding systems that allowed In the aeroplane over the sea to happen are long lost, and forever. Luckily, they documented these forces on this album, and it’s more than enough.

I’ll admit it, I have no idea what The king of carrot flowers Pt 1 is about. I don’t even have a clue what the title is about. But I know how it feels. I know that weird claustrophobic feeling, I recognise the stifling religious imagery, those bashed out chords, the anger and urgency behind his playing and singing, that cheap-sounding acoustic that somehow weaves a thread between bayou blues, dime-store folk, and DIY punk – and has influenced everyone from Arcade Fire to Bright Eyes to Dashboard Confessional. I can hear the weird family discord: the mother who drinks herself mute; the father who plans his suicide but lacks the fortitude to push it past a daydream; the couple – possibly step-siblings, possibly not – exploring their sexuality while two parents fight viciously in the other room. “This is the room one afternoon I knew I could love you,” Mangum sings, and whether he is discovering Anne Frank – a major character on this album – through her diaries, or a lover through her/his body, the results are the same. This is a song about someone discovering something fundamental and human amidst the turmoil of childhood. Or maybe it’s not – as I said, I have no idea. It doesn’t matter a whole lot.


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The song segues into parts 2 and 3 before waltzing into the album’s beautiful title track, a meditation on the strange fragility of life and death which summarises everything in one perfect line: “Can’t believe how strange it is to be anything at all.” It’s a heart-stopper, and one worth running through your head on loop whenever something silly threatens your mental state. When you stop to simply marvel at your own existence – at how “the notes all bend and reach above the trees” – any lesser concerns will seem thoroughly unworthy of your time.

 

Nathan Jolly

Nathan is a Sydney-based journalist who has written for numerous publications over the years, including Junkee, This Recording, New York Post, The BRAG, SBS, Triple J Mag, Channel [V], and news.com.au. He used to be pretty good at hitting three-pointers, and can still cartwheel, although he never learnt to swim, drive, or manage money.

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