If I asked you to name the classic Neutral Milk Hotel album, you’d probably say In The Aeroplane Over the Sea, but what’s the point in going over an album that has had everything said about it already, I ask? Ferris Wheel On Fire, though not exactly in the highly known NMH releases, came with a huge box set in 2011, but was arguably the most exciting prospect of the entire collection. It came with some unreleased songs, as well as some remade tracks from the On Avery Island days, the album prior to In the Aeroplane… such as the melancholy April 8th and A Baby For Pree. It would be hard to delve into every aspect of the release, so here are some the highlights.
‘Oh Sister’ is a companion piece to In the Aeroplane… so you’re on safe ground here. It tells the story of a family, specifically a sister, where the mother is always drunk and the grandmother has ‘milk from your blisters on your grandmother’s jewellery’. If you’re not one for casual incest and killing dreams, NMH is probably not going to be at the top of your list. ‘Oh Sister’ also contains one of the best chord changes in any song ‘ever’, seemingly stealing the chords from the bridge of ‘In The Aeroplane Over the Sea’ to transfer into a mish mash of words about ‘oranges out in the open’ and ‘american, self-important boiling over’. Jeff Mangum just doesn’t stop coming out with these beautifully surrealist lyrics about this sister’s tragic life.
‘April 8th’ is a slight twist on the original, whereas the first version was backed by ominous synths and horns, this version is a more stripped-back affair. The vocals are boosted up much more, which became more common after the first album. It’s just Mangum and his guitar this time around, singing ‘There is no use in waiting / offer up your steps so I can climb’ in the smouldering child characters that popped back up in ‘Two Headed Boy’. It becomes apparent that Mangum can’t sing, at least conventionally anyway. He makes up in passion in what he loses in ‘technical skill’. This is shown in ‘I Will Bury You In Time’, where Mangum sings ‘Everything you are I’m tearing through / Everything you want I’m wanting too’ like his guitar is on fire. It’s simply not possible to have Mangum put 50% into a song. He pours his entire broken, creative spirit into it.
‘Engine’ sees some extra instrumentation come in, in the form of the singing saw, an instrument that was deployed frequently in the NMH catalogue just for the sheer creepy atmosphere it brings. ‘Engine’ could easily be a child’s song, with Mangum singing ‘talking to tigers from his cafeteria tray’ and ‘sweet babies cry for the cool taste of milking’. Mangum has a knack for making the normal seem surrealist and fairytale like. This release has the same post-war green and brown textures, it just ‘feels old’, beyond its time/
‘Home’ is perhaps the more furious song on Ferris Wheel On Fire. ‘Home / it’s just another word you’ll always push away’ and ‘I swear that they’ll remember now’ backed by some accordion and a guitar being hit so hard that it’s no doubt falling apart. It’s a song that is hard to interpret, like most NMH songs due to the sheer amount of odd lyrics, but it comes across as defensive song against ‘shrinks’ and ‘social work’, but is also critical of the protagonist, who pushes home, or their safety, away. There is never much in the way of instrumental boundary-pushing on the guitar, mostly consisting of simple chords being thrashed out. In my opinion it never comes across as a weakness, it brings Mangum’s voice out more and focuses attention on what it largely the pull of NMH – the haunting lyrics.
Like In The Aeroplane…, Ferris Wheel On Fire shares similarities of subject and instrumentation, but in a more condensed form and offering extra insight into the mind of Mangum. It’s sad considering the musical talent that NMH may never record again, but in the end the pressure of success is what drove Mangum to his disappearance for about ten years. We shouldn’t push musicians to the end, we can only appreciate the glorious material that they give us how and when they want.