By Patrick Caldwell
The saying goes that victory has a thousand fathers. In popular music, it also has at least that many children.
Brian Eno probably made the observation most famously. In a 1982 interview with Musician magazine, Eno conjectured that while the Velvet Underground’s debut album may have sold only 30,000 copies, everyone who bought it started a band.
If that’s how you measure victory, perhaps no band emerged from the 1990s more victorious than Neutral Milk Hotel. An Athens, Georgia, quartet fronted by lyricist, singer and guitarist Jeff Mangum, Neutral Milk Hotel released only two albums — 1996’s “On Avery Island” and 1998’s “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea” — before going on hiatus. Mangum became indie rock’s reclusive Salinger, largely retreating from public view.
But like “The Velvet Undergound & Nico” before it, “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea” proved to have legs beyond what anyone anticipated. Its psychedelic folk cacophony, at once explosive and achingly delicate, captivated a generation of listeners. Mangum’s brittle, wounded voice and haunting imagery — the album’s primary touchstone, most everyone concluded, was “The Diary of Anne Frank” — connected with outcasts everywhere. Rolling Stone and Pitchfork upgraded their initial review scores. The album continued to sell, picking up new converts every year.
So when Mangum unexpectedly returned to playing shows in 2011, followed by the rest of the band in 2013, in some senses it felt like they’d never left, so thoroughly had the preceding decade been shaped by Neutral Milk Hotel’s eruptive sound, plaintive earnestness, and idiosyncratic mix of whimsy and despair.
When the crowds assemble for the band’s Fun Fun Fun Fest Sunday night headlining set — and assemble they will — they’ll be living proof of Neutral Milk Hotel’s lasting appeal, singing along ecstatically to “The King of Carrot Flowers Pt. 1.” While they do so, consider Neutral Milk Hotel’s children — the bands that either wouldn’t exist, or would likely look very different in a world without Neutral Milk Hotel. In other words: the fruits of victory.
Arcade Fire. Frontman Win Butler cited Neutral Milk Hotel as one of the reasons the group signed with the legendary Durham, N.C.-based independent label Merge Records. It may be tough to draw a line from today’s Grammy-winning, studiously professional, carefully marketed Arcade Fire to the seemingly — never actually, but seemingly — slapdash, raw Neutral Milk Hotel. But there’s plenty of shared DNA between “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea” and debut Arcade Fire album “Funeral.” Both are sonically adventurous listens equally adept at delivering cathartic singalongs and sad, striking punches to the gut. And both are awash in mourning for people, and innocence, lost. Merge steadily supported Neutral Milk Hotel — support that paid off, as “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea” continued to sell, eventually crossing 300,000 units. (10 years after its release, in 2008, it was still among the 10 best-selling vinyl albums that year.) They were equally devoted to Arcade Fire, and “Funeral” eventually overtook “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea” as the label’s best-selling album.
Decemberists. Portland, Ore. folk band the Decemberists have had a more prolific and more commercially successful career than Neutral Milk Hotel — ambling from the winning folk-pop of 2003’s “Her Majesty the Decemberists” to 2009 progressive rock concept album “The Hazards of Love” to the instantly accessible country vibes of 2011’s “The King of Dead.” But it’s unlikely they could have gone so far had Mangum not primed the world to accept a largely acoustic pop folk collective playing songs laden with historical and folkloric imagery. Could the Decemberists have made a trademark of a baroque nine-minute song about a seaman’s revenge on the man who ruined his life (“The Mariner’s Revenge Song”) in a universe where Neutral Milk Hotel had not done the same with a nine-minute song about a pair of Siamese twins freezing to death in the forest (“Oh Comely”)?
Beirut. It’s easier to connect Beirut to Neutral Milk Hotel than most of the band’s descendants, for one simple reason: Neutral Milk Hotel drummer Jeremy Barnes actually contributed to Beirut’s first record, “Gulag Orkestar.” But there’s more to it than that. Lead by songwriter, singer and multi-instrumentalist Zach Condon — he counts the trumpet, the flugelhorn, the ukulele, the accordion and the conch shell among his repertoire — Beirut integrates folk with baroque pop and elements of world music, especially Balkan folk. Condon shares with Mangum a voice that’s both operatic and vulnerable, as well as an affinity for horns and a style that’s simultaneously both spare and intricate.
Bright Eyes. It would probably be more accurate to call Bright Eyes, the indie folk band founded by singer-songwriter, guitarist and future Monster of Folk Connor Oberst, a contemporary of Neutral Milk Hotel. The second Bright Eyes album — “Letting Off the Happiness” — was even released in 1998, the same year as “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea.” It also features drums from Neutral Milk Hotel’s Jeremy Barnes. But where Jeff Mangum largely sat out the aughts, Oberst spent them constantly growing, and in his embrace of vulnerability and viscerality, especially on “I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning,” it’s not hard to spot Mangum’s influence.
The Lumineers. Neutral Milk Hotel fans would probably find the suggestion sacrilegious. But modern mainstream radio — when it’s not being dominated by dance, that is — is awash in folk rock, whether it’s Denver trio the Lumineers and their soaring “Ho Hey,” world conquerors Mumford and Sons, or “American Idol” season 11 winner Phillip Phillips. These bands may not be strictly descended from Neutral Milk Hotel. But few people ever give Mangum credit for just how catchy a songwriter he was, and it’s not hard to look at his jauntier numbers and imagine that if you added an extra layer of production sheen, stripped away the more captivating lyrics, and sanded off the corners and edges you’d get something like the Lumineers’ “Dead Sea.” In its own way, Neutral Milk Hotel helped make the world safe for mainstream pop folk.