Long before In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, or even On Avery Island, Neutral Milk Hotel was still in its infancy as an artistic outlet for hipster obsession, Jeff Mangum. The first official release of this “outlet,” Everything Is, is like a psychedelic nightmare with field recordings intermixed with freak folk and thick guitar distortion. Though this EP isn’t a spectacle like Aeroplane, it gives insight into the beginnings of Mangum’s developing sound and artistic direction during his youth. It’s far more experimental—effortlessly reaching originality because it doesn’t know how to be anything else except itself. Obviously it’s not Mangum’s finest work, but for devout fans (which is basically the entirety of Neutral Milk Hotel’s listeners) it’s an opportunity to delve deeper into his abstract mind that is forever shrouded in mystery despite the numerous attempts to drag him out into the spotlight to say something to clear up of the mythology that’s surrounded him.
“Everything Is” opens with a conversation between Mangum and some ‘punk rocker’ about Kiss, then launches into a lazy, fuzz guitar pop tune that is coated with Mangum’s layered vocals. The lyrics are characteristically strange, “I’m not afraid of a love parade in my daydream—old men with kazoos and beating drums—but I awake and I see the streets are ice cream. It’s just you and me and oh dear, our life has just begun.” But the immaturity of these early songs show with a very blasé chorus that has lines that offer no surprises and, more so, the fact that Mangum’s voice sounds like a melodramatic child singing a love song for some crush he’ll never date. This isn’t to say the whole song is ‘whiney,’ but it’s painfully obvious that it’s most likely one of his first attempts of really trying to write a good, catchy song.
“Snow Song Pt. 1” salvages this shroud of doubt most fans would have by hinting at the sound that would consume On Avery Island. It’s delicate and haunting, with a nice mix of both acoustic and fuzz guitars, and shows off the (now beloved) refrain capabilities of Mangum holding out notes for measures on end. It’s an odd love song that’s for some girl named Cindy, which is out of character for Mangum’s lyricism because names are rarely mentioned (besides the famed Goldaline from “Oh Comely”). “Cindy skips my trampoline with toys and horns and bouncing things. And even the most silent must sing a song of love. Yes, even the silent they must sing a song of love.” If there is a gem on this EP, I’d have to say that this is it. It holds the most resemblance to the sound Mangum was striving after and what fans would later fall for.
Mangum’s sound collages have often been talked about in passing through interviews and fans who have gotten their hands on early demos. But we’re give a special treat with “Aunt Eggma Blowtorch,” which is nothing more than a full five minute creation that is the elevator music of Mangum’s mind. It’s hard to really review a sound collage besides begging the readers to experience it for themselves if the writer thinks it’s any good. I think it’s good. So don’t skip over it.
I will say that the real ‘disappointing’ thing about this EP is that “Tuesday Moon” seems to promise a lot but under-delivers by cutting off without warning—seemingly bringing the record to an unexpected end. It’s a pretty rad hippie jam, too, which is why I’m a little bummed that it didn’t go on for longer or turn into some insane ending like “Pree-Sisters Swallowing a Donkey’s Eye.” But overall, Everything Is is a good, short listen that solidifies that Neutral Milk Hotel wasn’t an ‘accident’ that was able to capture talent for only one album. It was an immense growing process that involved experimentation, life experiences, and overall maturity from the fabled front man before Aeroplane could ever become a reality. The EP fits perfectly into the band’s catalog—in place, impossible to define, but absolutely Neutral Milk Hotel.