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Tuesday Musics: “Little Birds” by Neutral Milk Hotel (Jeff Mangum)

by Carl Wilson

I finally read Kim Cooper’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea book this week – the bestselling volume in the 33 1/3 series, and therefore in a dumb way a bit of a rival to mine (at least till Lethem knocks us both out?), which embarrassingly may be a subconscious reason I took so long to read it, along with my discomfort with the cultishness around that album.

But the book is an excellent work of oral history that dispels myths rather than feeding them – except perhaps in a couple of hard-to-avoid places, like this one: Kim describes the premiere of this song a while after the final Neutral Milk Hotel song tour and quotes one of the band’s circle of friends (who filmed a lot of their gigs), Lance Bangs, having trouble imagining the band playing it – “What you’re hearing is so much more direct and fucked up, that there’s not really room to take a step back and hear that. To me it was this weird delineation.” And the band never played together officially again.

That made me want to listen to it today – I’m not sure when this recording was made, but it doesn’t strike me as that unadaptable to the band, relative to the music they’d made before. It must have been the moment more than the song itself, I think.  People are very resistant to the argument that music is unstoppably social, that what we hear in a song is always made as much out of contexts as of rhythms and chords and timbres. The story of “Little Birds” seems like a good illustration. It’s certainly charged by being the last of its late-1990s NMH era, and no admirer can help being sad there were no more. But Kim’s book demystifies (perhaps even to a fault) the “mad dropout” story of Mangum’s withdrawal from music, which was also relieved in the past couple of years with limited tours, including a Toronto show I was very lucky to see last summer.

Part of what made those concerts such happy events is that fans had gotten over that petty notion that an artist who’d given them something great somehow owed them more. Instead they could take the shows as acts of generosity, which is surely what the songs had always been, for the community of musicians and audiences alike, and what songs always are – along with being bracingly selfish things, which this song surely is too. There’s no contradiction there. And no contract.

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Filed under books, carl wilson, music, Tuesday Musics