I have a dinosaur of a Dell laptop, the city of Granada, and a best friend to thank for bringing “Holland, 1945” into my life. With Neutral Milk Hotel headed to Boston’s Orpheum Theater Jan. 16-17, it’s a good time to revisit the band’s seminal album.
It was spring 2007, I was studying abroad in Spain, and Granada, that former Moorish stronghold nestled beneath the snowy Sierra Nevada in the southernmost region of the Iberian Peninsula, was freezing. An uncharacteristic cold snap had settled in the small Andalusian city that January, as did a group of foreign students that descended upon its university, including my best friend, Lianne, and myself. Upon moving into the residencia, my computer, that ancient laptop, called it quits. My iPod inexplicably erased itself shortly thereafter. This wouldn’t have been the biggest deal, except back then, the Cloud wasn’t a thing and your iTunes had to be manually backed up onto whatever CD-Rs you had lying around. I didn’t pack those back-up discs, which meant that my music library in its entirety was back home in the US. I was pissed, I was cold, I was without Hot Hot Heat and Belle and Sebastian and Spoon, and all I wanted to do was bundle up, put in my earbuds and listen to some Gipsy Kings while walking up to the Alhambra or something. I was on the cusp of a big adventure and I had no soundtrack. The silence, in that sterile dorm room, was deafening.
I had grumbled about losing my music to Lianne and her answer was simple: “We’ll just share an iPod!” By “share,” Lianne suggested I plug my iPod into her computer, thus uploading her music library and thus giving me something to listen to. The problem was solved, just like that, and thankfully, Lianne had (and still has) excellent taste in music, the product of years spent driving around Bostonian suburbs with cars full of eager friends who depended on WFNX and WERS for the Top 40 antidote. The best part of the two of us sharing an iPod was getting to know all of the bands she loved but I had never heard of before, and a playlist was quickly amassed of our mutual favorites — and “Holland, 1945,” off Neutral Milk Hotel’s In The Aeroplane Over The Sea, was at the top of that list.
“Now she’s a little boy in Spain/playing pianos filled with flames” was the lyric that hooked us, and “Holland, 1945” would serve as our adopted anthem over the course of those five months we spent learning what “subjunctive” meant in between cheap treks to Eastern Europe and Ireland. We danced like maniacs to it in hostels, in dorm rooms, in a train car somewhere in between Budapest and Bratislava. It’s a conflicted listen, “Holland, 1945,” in that it’s the most frenetic, upbeat song Jeff Mangum penned for “In an Aeroplane Over the Sea” with some of the darkest subject matter. “The girl with roses in her eyes” that Mangum sings about is Anne Frank; while furiously strumming an acoustic guitar and conducting a small symphony of distorted guitars, bright trumpets, and cymbal crashes, Mangum speaks of mourning her and the loss of a “dark brother,” referring to the “indentions in the sheets where their bodies once move but don’t move anymore.” It’s solemn. It’s grim. “Holland, 1945” is a perfect paradox of celebratory melody and melancholic refrain, one that you probably shouldn’t dance to but can’t help but do so, and it’s one that moves fans in a similar way when they stampede to see Mangum some 15 years since the release of “Aeroplane.”
When Neutral Milk Hotel announced that it’d be playing a few dates on a reunion tour last year, my first thought was of that iPod and how I was introduced to Neutral Milk Hotel, desperate for something, anything, that was new and good. In 2007, “Aeroplane” was hardly new, and it had plenty of accolades to boast of already: The record would go on to be one of the best-selling vinyl releases following its debut in 1998; in an interview with Pitchfork in 2005, Arcade Fire’s Win Butler would cite the album as one of the chief reasons for the band’s signing with Merge Records, the label that’s been home to Neutral Milk Hotel since 1996. Tribute bands have sprung up in recent years, namely Neutral Uke Hotel, which was spearheaded by Golden Bloom’s ukulele-wielding Shawn Fogel and has included Michael J. Epstein (Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling, The Michael J. Epstein Memorial Library, etc.) and Matthew Girard (Parks, These Wild Plains) from our own music scene.
“Aeroplane,” like a fine wine, has only gotten better with age, with “Two-Headed Boy,” “Communist Daughter,” “Holland, 1945,” and the rest of its songs marinating in the subdued glory of its vintage. Computers still crash and iPods, whatever generation they are, will cop that Sad Mac face until they’re out of production, but hopefully kids hungry for a song that will surprise them and adopt them into the ranks of life-long Neutral Milk Hotel fans, even if they do so completely by accident. And especially if they’re freezing in Spain.