Near the end of last century, I was sitting in Daniel and Jens’ apartment somewhere in Brooklyn. Bushwick? A warehousey place, I had never been there before despite our years of friendship. I think it was off a train whose letters I never knew well – the J/Z or the Q or the B when it used to not really be a line. It was hot in Manhattan, I remember that, and in their place it was not.
I was there to record some songs, which we never really did. Maybe we still should. I would sing a little and hit some fuzzy bar chords and Jens would hit record and we’d try to make something gritty with four tracks and “realistic” background noises, which meant Travis walking in and out of the living room. I couldn’t sing well, couldn’t find my ear, which happens to me sometimes in front of microphones. We kept trying new things. The boys had a soundproof bathroom and crystalline eyes. It was dreamy, these friends, making noise as a way to hang out, just some California kids deep in the New Yorkness of it all.
We took a break. Smoked a joint. Put on a record. Neutral Milk Hotel, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea.
Jens and I listened close in an effort to hear the tape being pushed to “record” – to hear the actual click on the track. I felt like New York could never be less than any other place, even though I’d already decided to leave. Daniel came home from work at some point and joined us, said something poetic and superlative like he usually does, about how this record is a masterwork of production and love and spirituality. Click. Push the ceiling levels all the way and keep playing. Sit back. Catch a later train in the alphabet.
The thing about this album, I explained recently to a slightly younger friend, is that it just happened to define a generation—my exact generation—of musical aesthetic. And that it’s really fucking good. Both those things, equally.
Four tracks, probably, a lyrical narrative through-line that is almost indecipherable when it comes to “plot” but narrative nonetheless, the beautiful emotions of a young man laid bare, layers of noise and fuzz without overload. Optimism in the face of historical dismalness. Drawings instead of photographs. Acoustic guitar and distortion, together at last.
Somehow in this album, a ramshackle group of music-crazy friends living in the South managed to make a generational icon that reverberated through Brooklyn and beyond. They found it, they had it, they laid it down: the innocent, raw non-urbanity that all urban art kids strive to replicate in some way. And skilled. This isn’t riot grrl raw, of barely knowing how to play your instrument but rocking it anyway with a fuck-you to the man. This is raw but tight, punk but planned, the man doesn’t even know where you live, messy low tech executed with the technical improvisational confidence of a bedroom knob-twiddler, with love. A secret genius.
If you love this album, it means things to you. To me, it mostly means the wave of love that can hit me when I encounter the synchronicitous combination of friends and art, life and time. Whether it’s Jens and Daniel and me in their loftlike living room on couches found on the street, eyes upward, trying to understand how to be that pure; or Brooke and me in her room riffing on the concept of the “Communist daughter” and diving into the rumored allusions to Anne Frank in the narrative; or my friend Jeannie, counting off “1, 2, uh-1, 2, 3, 4,” in perfect time before the fuzz kicks in, bopping her ponytail in the driver’s seat of the pickup truck as we barrel through the impossible greens of suburban Oregon.
It’s all these things, my friends. It’s how you built a tower tumbling through the trees— even though they tried to fuck you up too much to see the sky.
We’ll never be there again.