Thursday, October 27, 2005

A Trip Through the Strange: Eight Albums

I first heard Neutral Milk Hotel's In the Aeroplane Over the Sea maybe three years ago, when I made my first trip through all the indie rock I'd missed in the nineties. I liked it right away: its "fuzz-folk" sound, acoustic guitar and raw vocal filtered through electric distortion, bleating (and sometimes poignant) horns, and noise tracks, and Jeff Mangum's deliberately odd, now-visceral and now-obscure lyrics. But then it's fair to say that I forgot about it for a while, bringing it back only every now and again to pick tracks for mix CDs or to recommend it to friends.

Recently I've taken to listening to it again and again, going deeper into its self-created mythology of repeated phrases, odd allusions, and lyrical preoccupations. It's hard to summarize briefly, but a good chunk of the album is devoted to Anne Frank, and her death and rebirth as a kind of Benjaminian angel of history. More than its specific content, access to the album's mythology gives it an emotional resonance that it might otherwise lack: for the forty minutes between the opening strums of "The King of Carrot Flowers, Pt. 1" and the sound of Mangum shutting the door at the end of "Two-Headed Boy, Pt. 2," we share Mangum's vision, its exuberant joys and tragic lows -- sometimes both together.

It's gotten me thinking about how some of my favorite albums have a similar kind of coherent, self-contained quality. It's not just "concept albums," or albums with a unique musical or instrumental quality (both of these seem to be necessary but not sufficient). Some albums aren't just musically distinct from others: they're also emotionally distinct, not just from other albums, but from other kinds of emotional states. This makes them profoundly personal on the one hand, but also intimately accessible: once you find the key, you're a member of the band's secret world, even if that world remains a fundamentally strange one.

It's also not surprising that these albums are usually divisive: either you go along with and accept the musical and emotional world the album creates, or you don't. Here's a short list of eight of these albums, which, at least in my experience, prove to be especially compelling:

1) Neutral Milk Hotel, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea
2) The Beach Boys, Pet Sounds
3) Van Morrison, Astral Weeks
4) Nick Drake, Pink Moon
5) My Bloody Valentine, Loveless
6) Joni Mitchell, Blue
7) Magnetic Fields, 69 Love Songs
8) Liz Phair, Exile in Guyville

These albums are pretty far from the greatest albums of all time (although at least a few of them would make my shortlist) which again raises the question of why so many of those albums (The Beatles', for example, or most of Dylan's -- Blood on the Tracks might be the great exception) don't do what these albums do, despite their greatness. I think the answer might be the absence of a certain closed quality -- albums like Revolver or Exile on Main St. let the whole world in, while these albums are concerned with shutting at least part of it out. That's why they're the favorites of the loners, people who like to listen to music in their bedrooms and muse on their own strangeness and emotional distress -- which is almost all of us, at least some of the time.

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