Engine by Neutral Milk Hotel: Great B-sides

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.

Engine Lyrics

[Verse 1]
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

[Verse 2]
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

[Verse 3]
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
Mmmm, mmmm

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  1. Wow, I guess I’m out of touch, at least when it comes to alternative music. I had never heard of Jeff Mangum and Neutral Milk Hotel (what a weird name!) but see Apple Music calls “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea” a “masterpiece.” I guess I’m going to check it out! 🙂

    • It’s pretty much the forebear for 2000s indie. Like a lot of indie you trade off professionalism and virtuosity for emotional sincerity and a unique artistic vision. Depends if you’re happy for that. I think it’s a pretty special record although I haven’t pulled it out for a long time.

  2. “Engine” knocked me out. Loved his voice and the rawness of the song. It has an old sound about it but modern. I’m going to check them out. I’ve never heard of them but will find out more about them. Thanks
    Off Topic. When you sent me that link to the Mutton Birds a few playlists came up for New Zealand bands. I never realized that New Zealand had that many bands old and new. Some great stuff.

    • The second album (In The Aeroplane Over The Sea) is the one everyone likes.
      What NZ bands did you like? We don’t really have many big international bands, but plenty of tuneful guitar pop.

      • I listened to them at work but the ones that come to mind are DD Smash, Hub Kapp and The Wheels, Slice of Heaven, and one that was soft but ok…it was the Fourmyula. There were more…
        I will check that album out.
        It was more than that but some cool music.

        • Dave Dobbyn’s really good – he’s never really made it big out of Australia and NZ, but probably deserved to. He was the leader of DD Smash, then ‘Slice of Heaven’ was on his first solo project.
          The Fourmyula’s ‘Nature’ was voted as NZ’s best song ever in a big poll at the start of the century.

          • Funny because another song I liked was called Bliss and sure enough…Dobbyn is in that also I just read.
            I’m going to check some more out this week. Would the Finn brothers be the most well known?

          • Up until this decade, Neil Finn was our most successful export, with Split Enz and Crowded House (and Fleetwood Mac). Now we have Lorde, who’s obviously a big star. We also have Kimbra – I like her solo stuff, but she’s best known for guest vocals on the Gotye hit ‘Somebody That I Used To Know’.

        • Definitely, yeah. I have the 2008 edition (maybe) and found a lot of the 2000’s stuff to be pretty dated now. Stuff that was never really lasting… which I guess was always likely to happen. Older stuff can be assessed properly.

          • I dunno if you’ve been seeing the best of the 2010s lists coming out recently – different lists have a wide range of stuff in them, but the top 5-10 have been very similar over the lists. A couple of Kendrick Lamar records, Kanye’s MBDTF, Frank Ocean. It’s like the internet age has increased consensus a lot – seems likely those records will hold up well.

          • Kanye’s MBDTF is a masterpiece. Absolutely no complaints about that being among the best albums of ever ever.
            I’ve yet to really be convinced by Kendrick and, well, aside from a few tracks, Frank Ocean bores me. I think my biggest issue with this decade is how people run out of superlatives for stuff that is just okay. But I accept that I’m maybe just out of touch.

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