Detail of the box set cover art: The Collected Works of Neutral Milk Hotel showing the "woman leaking with light."

Merge to release The Collected Works of Neutral Milk Hotel

It’s hard to believe that there was a period of time not too long ago when there was a flurry of Neutral Milk Hotel activity after a decade of silence.

After wrapping up touring for In the Aeroplane Over the Sea in 1998, Jeff Mangum disappeared. Of course, he didn’t really disappear but he didn’t do what we expect our beloved rock stars to do: write an album, release an album, tour the album, write an album, release an album, tour the album, repeat ad infinitum or at least until people get tired you. That’s not what Mangum did.

But he didn’t disappear.

He played a full solo set in New Zealand in 2001. And after that, he would occasionally show up for a cameo when his friends’ bands would play in New York. It’s pretty presumptuous to assume that if a rock and roll guy isn’t out doing typical rock and roll stuff then he must be a recluse and maybe even unstable. We don’t have a lot of examples of folks who stepped away. Syd Barrett? Sure, probably cuckoo for cocoa puffs, but who really knows? But there’s also Bill Withers and Bobbie Gentry who seem to have led perfectly undramatic lives away from the spotlight.

I missed NMH the first time around. This will sound like bullshit but I was introduced to their music by a guy named Merlin. It’s true. Merlin. It was a family name. His dad was named Merlin too. He had just seen them play Lounge Ax and told me how great they were. He told me they had two albums but I should start with the newest one. By the time I got into Aeroplane, the band was over.

But then in 2008, the Elephant Six Holiday Surprise Tour was announced as a way to promote the release of Major Organ and the Adding Machine on DVD, but really its main purpose seemed to be an excuse for a bunch of friends to get together and travel around the country and make an enormous racket. I saw the Chicago show. At the end, Mangum and Julian Koster played “Engine” from the middle of the floor. It had taken ten years, but I finally got to see as much of Neutral Milk Hotel as I ever expected I would. Besides Mangum and Koster, Scott Spillane, Laura Carter, and Robert Schneider were also part of the ensemble. And Jeremy Barnes was in attendance. So everyone involved in the recording of In the Aeroplane Over the Sea was together in the same room. I was disappointed they didn’t take advantage of that circumstance and run through “Ghost” or “Holland, 1945,” but it was still a thrill.

A few more years went by and seemingly out of nowhere in 2011 Mangum launched a website with an announcement of a massive vinyl NMH box set containing both albums, two 10″ EPs, three 7-inch singles, featuring fifteen previously unreleased tracks including a Holy Grail studio recording of “Little Birds,” the only song known to have been written by Mangum post-Aeroplane, played live only once at Mangum’s penultimate performance of 1998. I ordered it immediately. It’s a beautiful thing and the unreleased stuff was breathtaking.

And then, amazingly, Mangum announced a solo tour. I saw him at the Athenaeum Theatre in Chicago on February 6, 2012 and it was everything I had hoped for. His voice was strong. His beard was fantastic. The songs sounded as good as ever.

And then, even more amazingly, a full-band world tour was announced. I got to see them at the Riviera Theatre in Chicago in 2014 and again in Kalamazoo in 2015! The band lived up to everything I could’ve imagined. Chaotic, joyful, mournful, haunting, silly, and super fun. But then that was it. They said it would be the “last tour for the foreseeable future” and it was.

Neutral Milk Hotel news has been pretty quiet since then.

But now, Merge has announced it’s expanding that box set and re-releasing it on February 24 as The Collected Works of Neutral Milk Hotel, adding the Live at Jittery Joe’s LP and a previously unreleased 2014 live recording of “Little Birds” on the single. They also expanded On Avery Island to two LPs to include the full-length version of “Pree-Sisters Swallowing a Donkey’s Eye.” Plus, the “Holland, 1945” / “Engine” 7-inch has brand new art.

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Audio: Neutral Milk Hotel – “Little Birds” (1998 studio demo)

From The Collected Works of Neutral Milk Hotel, out February 24 on Merge.

Audio: Neutral Milk Hotel – “Little Birds” (live in 2014)

Previously unreleased 2014 live recording of “Little Birds” in Prospect Park, Brooklyn, featuring Jeremy Barnes & Heather Trost of A Hawk and a Hacksaw. From The Collected Works of Neutral Milk Hotel, out February 24 on Merge.

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Neutral Milk Hotel Announce The Collected Works of Neutral Milk Hotel Box Set Out February 24th On Merge & Present “Little Birds

(Photo Courtesy of Neutral Milk Hotel)

Today, Neutral Milk Hotel announce The Collected Works of Neutral Milk Hotel, a box set out February 24th on Merge, and present the first official release of “Little Birds.” The work has always come together subconsciously for Neutral Milk Hotel’s Jeff Mangum, even this box set. For years, Mangum collected images for an art box of sorts — would it be a Joseph Cornell-style assemblage? An experimental board game? Only time would tell. In the end, it became a discography-spanning compendium of his musical universe that still left a few treasures floating around in the musical ether. In 2011, Mangum collected nearly all of the band’s recorded output in a limited-edition box set, which he self-released under Neutral Milk Hotel Records, a small operation helmed by Mangum and his mother. The Merge edition of The Collected Works of Neutral Milk Hotel marks the collection’s first digital release, and includes an expanded double LP edition of On Avery Island, an exclusive 12″ picture disc of Live at Jittery Joe’sa previously unreleased live recording of “Little Birds,” plus the “Holland, 1945” / “Engine” 7-inch on black vinyl with brand new art.

“Little Birds” and its 7″ present a prayer-like song Mangum wrote quickly in 1998 and played later that day at a friend’s party, shortly before he stopped doing Neutral Milk Hotel. He wouldn’t play the song again for 10 years, but that live recording floated around online. Mangum wrote the song after a confrontation with a street preacher in downtown Athens who was spewing hatred towards LGBTQ people. A small group of five or six people gathered and shouted back. Mangum yelled to the point that the preacher got off his stool and slinked away. That distressing experience reverberated as Mangum wrote “Little Birds,” a song about many things, including how conservative Christianity too often imbues so-called believers with an utterly warped sense of morality. A newer version, recorded live at the Prospect Park Bandshell on Neutral Milk Hotel’s 2014 reunion tour, is included on the 2023 Merge box set.

Pre-order The Collected Works of Neutral Milk Hotel

The two full-length records that Jeff Mangum made as Neutral Milk Hotel sound both in and out of time. Like translations of a shared subconscious, 1996’s On Avery Island and 1998’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea give voice to the perennial spirit of youthful epiphany, of beginning to see the world clearly, to process and express it — no matter when you encounter them. With lo-fi indie rock, accordion, singing saw, tape collages, the so-called “zanzithophone” and beyond, Neutral Milk Hotel created an eternal entry into their Elephant 6 scene and an enduring feeling of possibility.

The remastered 1994 7″ Everything Is appears on 10″ vinyl as the extended EP that Mangum always envisioned, adding a few extra songs from the period. Newly added to Everything Is, “Unborn” came from a tape that Mangum made for Bill Doss (Olivia Tremor Control) while living in Athens as they traded cassettes like audio letters, filled with songs, field recordings, and conversation. These first unvarnished Neutral Milk Hotel recordings tell the story of Mangum’s genesis as an artist with a subcultural sound and subcultural values.

Also included here is a trio of 7″ singles, one of which features early versions of the On Avery Island songs “You’ve Passed” and “Where You’ll Find Me Now” from 1994, recorded on four-track by Mangum on his own. Mangum was initially going to record the whole album at home on a four-track but soon realized that he would need the help of a friend, The Apples in Stereo’s Robert Schneider, to produce. Mangum gave Schenider this cassette (later rediscovered in a shoebox) in advance of those sessions.

The 10″ EP Ferris Wheel on Fire, primarily recorded with Schneider in 2010, collects stray songs that Mangum had written many years prior but never set to tape. (The exception is “My Dream Girl Don’t Exist,” recorded live at Aquarius Records in San Francisco in the ’90s.) In the box set, Ferris Wheel is accompanied by a card denoting the year that each song was written, helping to illustrate how the Neutral Milk Hotel catalog took shape. Ferris Wheel‘s “Oh Sister,” for instance, was written on the same day as Aeroplane‘s “Oh Comely.” There’s a sense of music building in a world in which words, phrases, images, and chord progressions echo and recur.

A final component of the box portrays that process viscerally: Live at Jittery Joe‘s, the live album recorded in 1997 that Mangum first released in 2001. It captures Neutral Milk Hotel at its most profoundly pivotal moment. After the release of On Avery Island in 1996 and a subsequent tour, Mangum and his bandmates — Julian KosterJeremy Barnes, and Scott Spillane — found themselves in New York’s West Village where, in October of that year, Mangum wrote “Two-Headed Boy.” The band was about to get kicked out of their apartment, and soon headed south to regroup with friends in Athens. By that point, the scene was in bloom. Olivia Tremor Control had released its debut LP; Elf Power was playing. Athens was an easy and fruitful place to live and create. Neutral Milk Hotel happily joined in, moving into a beautiful house on Grady Street where Mangum continued to write In the Aeroplane Over the Sea from January to May of 1997.

If the live recordings, alternate takes, and time stamps of this box set illustrate the process of Neutral Milk Hotel’s world coming into focus, it’s fitting. In a recent conversation, Mangum reflected on a question he’s gotten often: Why didn’t Neutral Milk ever make a video? But, he clarified, the band made millions of videos—all in people’s minds. Everybody has their own Neutral Milk Hotel film in their head. For an artist who took root in the liberating aesthetic of underground tape-trading and DIY punk—whose sense of what music can be was permanently altered by the Minutemen’s non formulaic structures, by their mix of the political and the impressionistic; who announced, at the start of his catalog, “I’m finally breaking free from fear”—it’s an invitation to hear the music, and then become a part of it.

The Collected Works of Neutral Milk Hotel Tracklist:In the Aeroplane Over the Sea
1. King of the Carrot Flowers Pt. 1
2. King of Carrot Flowers Pts. 2 & 3
3. In The Aeroplane Over the Sea
4. Two-Headed Boy
5. Fool
6. Holland, 1945
7. Communist Daughter
8. Oh Comely
9. Ghost
10. [untitled]
11. Two-Headed Boy Pt. 2

On Avery Island
1. Song Against Sex
2. You’ve Passed
3. Someone Is Waiting
4. A Baby for Pree
5. Marching Theme
6. Where You’ll Find Me Now
7. Avery Island/April 1st
8. Gardenhead/Leave Me Alone
9. Three Peaches
10. Naomi
11. April 8th
12. Pree-Sisters Swallowing a Donkey’s Eye

Ferris Wheel On Fire
1. Oh Sister (1995)
2. Ferris Wheel On Fire (1993)
3. Home (1992)
4. April 8th (1992)
5. I Will Bury You in Time (1994)
6. Engine (1993)
7. A Baby for Pree/Glow Into You (1995)
8. My Dream Girl Don’t Exist (Live) [1992]

Everything Is
1. Everything Is
2. Here We Are (For W. Cullen Hart)
3. Unborn
4. Tuesday Moon
5. Ruby Bulb
6. Snow Song
7. Aunt Eggma Blow Torch

Little Birds
1. Little Birds (Live) [1998]
2. Little Birds (Studio Demo) [1998]

You’ve Passed / Where You’ll Find Me Now
1. You’ve Passed (Alternate Version)
2. Where You’ll Find Me Now (Alternate Version)

Live at Jittery Joe’s
1. Intro
2. A Baby for Pree
3. Two-Headed Boy
4. I Will Bury You in Time
5. Gardenhead / Leave Me Alone
6. Two-Headed Boy Pt. 2
7. I Love How You Love Me
8. Engine
9. Naomi
10. King of Carrot Flowers Pt. 2
11. King of Carrot Flowers Pt. 3
12. Oh Comely

The Collected Works of Neutral Milk Hotel Cover Artwork

Neutral Milk Hotel: web, bandcamp, amazon, apple, spotify, wiki.

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