Neutral Milk Hotel’s In The Aeroplane Over The Sea is one of the great cult records. Issued in 1998, it’s full of enigmatic lines, like “Now she’s a little boy in Spain/Playing pianos filled with flames”, and Jeff Mangum’s raw performances are enticing. In The Aeroplane Over The Sea was expected to sell around 5,000 copies, but it’s sold closer to half a million and Jeff Mangum’s influence can be heard in the next generation of indie folk bands like The Decemberists and Arcade Fire.
The band’s never released a followup album, so their non-album material is pored over more than most. ‘Engine’ turned up on the b-side of the ‘Holland, 1945’ single. The version of ‘Holland, 1945’ was recorded in the London Underground – a train can be heard approaching at the end, and a single person clapping.
Mangum later explained that ‘Engine’ was a children’s song that he wrote during a brief happy period.
I was depressed and my life was completely crumbling around me. And then I wrote that song and got really happy for five minutes. And then I put it down on my answering machine so I wouldn’t forget it. And then I got terribly depressed again. And my life began crumbling again. (laughs)Jeff Mangum
Information from http://www.neutralmilkhotel.org/song-engine.htm
While we’re on the subject of Neutral Milk Hotel rarities, ‘Little Birds’ is the only known song that Mangum recorded and performed after In The Aeroplane Over The Sea. It was eventually released as a single in 2011.
For I am an engine
And I’m rolling on
Through endless revisions to state what I mean
For sweetness alone who flew out through the window
And landed back home in a garden of green
You’re riding alone in the back of a steamer
And steaming yourself in the warm shower spray
And water rolls on off the round captain’s belly
Who’s talking to tigers from his cafeteria tray
And sweet babies cry for the cool taste of milking
That milky delight that invited us all
And if there’s a taste in this life more inviting
Then wake up your windows and watch as those sweet babies crawl