In an ancient interview with SPIN, Travis Morrison of the indie greats the Dismemberment Plan once bemoaned some of the self-mythologizing that rock music tends to fall prey to. Specifically, he targeted whether fans of punk aesthetic trailblazers Fugazi were true mosh pit purists or what they “heard” in their music was their famed five-dollar ticket prices for shows.
It might sound bitter at first glance, admonishing listeners for idealism over the actual music of a group in question, but Morrison was attacking a particular facet of criticism and fan culture in general: the self-born mythology. Great songs come and go, but a great story is what people connect with. Bon Iver‘s 2007’s debut For Emma, Forever Ago is a great indie-folk offering, but when embellished with its story of heartbreak forcing frontman Justin Vernon to go to an isolated cabin for months and piece together the songs that he would build his empire upon, it takes on a different meaning. Zach Schonfeld detailed the inception of Sufjan Stevens‘ headline-grabbing and targeted story behind his “50 States Project” in an excellent article for the Ringer. If we’re being honest with ourselves, a similar rags-to-riches narrative made Susan Boyle a mega-platinum success.
Neutral Milk Hotel‘s mythos is enshrined in their music in a way that has turned them into legends. Born out of the weirdo Elephant 6 collective housed primarily in Athens, Georgia, Jeff Mangum bounced around various acts (including the Apples in Stereo) before finally settling on Neutral Milk Hotel as his moniker and chief creative output. While that outfit’s 1996 debut On Avery Island got some attention from the press, it’s 1998’s sophomore set In the Aeroplane Over the Sea that has gone down as one of the greatest indie rock albums of all time, arguably setting up the template that modern “indie” is compared to and defined.
Magnum achieved this in two ways, the first of which was by making an objectively great album. The second was how Magnum walked away from his fame, somewhat disturbed by his sudden post-Aeroplane notoriety and the way people were obsessing and asking him for interpretations of his lyrics at all times. He retreated and became a recluse, which grew his legend, leaving fans and journalists fighting over new interpretations while Magnum had none of it. He dropped a box set of the group’s entire output in 2011, called Neutral Milk Hotel (on Neutral Milk Hotel Records, naturally), and sweetened with the Ferris Wheel on Fire EP, containing numerous songs written between 1992 and 1995 but never formally released. Some surprising live shows happened in the early 2010s, but after that, it was clear that Magnum was done with the project and likely music in general.
Magnum’s absences from his storytelling have forced fans to tell it for him, and the 2023 release of The Collected Works of Neutral Milk Hotel mines the band’s legacy for all it’s worth. While the 2011 eponymous vinyl box set contained pretty much everything a fan would ever need, The Collected Works adopts the same sequencing and adds in a few small extras, specifically in getting takes of the rarity “Little Birds” onto streaming and adding the pre-Aeroplane live recording Live at Jittery Joe’s. There is some hubbub over the expanded edition of the genuinely excellent Everything Is EP, but this is the same expanded edition from the 2011 release.
This whole repackaging, done via longtime Neutral Milk Hotel distributor Merge Records, features everything from official unofficial music videos to pushing the truly rare “Where You’ll Find Me (Alternate Version)” as a college radio single of sorts. The joy of a group with such a limited oeuvre is that everything takes on such great importance, as the discovery of hard-to-find tracks like “Here We Are (For W. Cullen Hart)” from the Everything Is EP will mean something to a superfan, but if all this does is get people to recognize a song like “Tuesday Moon” as the sludge-pop classic that is, mission accomplished.
The Collected Works opens with Aeroplane, and for a good reason: it is a record where the strangeness, opulence, crudeness, and heart still hold up today. While On Avery Island feels messier and generally less focused (to say nothing of the far-too-long slog of closing drone “Pree-Sisters Swallowing a Donkey’s Eye”), it is fascinating to hear the two albums back-to-back, as the themes and melodies of Avery sometimes have to be searched for, while on Aeroplane, they ring with such distinct clarity. The standalone singles are lovely additions, but the crudely-captured Live at Jittery Joe’s feels like the real find of the set, featuring Magnum talking about his songwriting and process openly, kindly, and effectively, unaware of the unintentional generational spokesperson mantle he will soon acquire. Hearing him cover the old Brill Building pop staple “I Love How You Love Me” feels like a genuine discovery.
Part of the difficulty in assessing such a lionized discography is that there isn’t much left to say. PopMatters ran an elaborate oral history of Elephant 6 in 2006, covered books detailing the history of Aeroplane, and offered interpretations of that album’s true meaning as recently as 2015. It is a building block for all things indie, and while the Ferris Wheel on Fire EP and lesser-known singles are great addendums, they only flesh out Neutral Milk Hotel’s mythos instead of rewriting it. True diehard fans may wonder where the 33-minute “Field Work” sound collage or acoustic Chris Knox compilation cut “Sign the Dotted Line” are (as both are attributed to Magnum proper, like Live at Jittery Joe’s), but these are nitpicking at this point.
Jeff Mangum likely didn’t intend for Aeroplane to take on the extraordinary life it did. Still, with his recent tours in the last decade, he’s finally come around to tentatively embracing his reluctant mantle as an underground kingpin. As Travis Morrison warned, new fans may “hear” Magnum’s narrative before they hear any single track off The Collected Works of Neutral Milk Hotel. But the good news is that no matter what entry point they come in on, Neutral Milk Hotel’s gilded standing isn’t showing any signs of diminishing, as “The King of Carrot Flowers, Pt. One” remains one of the best album openers of the past three decades and no number of repackagings or re-releases will change that.