On the 24th February, Merge Records will be releasing a vinyl boxset of the complete works from 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 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’s, a 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.
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.