Neutral Milk Hotel: Ghost
f we polled our readers, if we took a snapshot of that indie demockracy that spikes up on our comments section at odd times, I’m guessing that the three most owned (or downloaded, or spun in a friend’s car) records would be OK Computer, The Beatles, and In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. I own all three; who doesn’t these days?
I don’t get out much, but I’ve already met one person who says “Ghost” is the biggest song ever. Bigger than “Sumer Is Icumen In,” bigger than “4’33”,” bigger than “Since U Been Gone.” Is there anyone else?
One fall night in 2003, I was inside my ’91 Accord, sulking in the parking lot of Kerri’s Stacked Enchiladas. On Thursday nights, Kerri’s (soon to close: the logo was the owner’s wife, complete with the titularly “stacked,” comically-akimbo breasts, holding a platter aloft) hosted a salsa night. All the vaguely worldly girls of Texas A&M had to go. Most probably among them was an ex. My first girlfriend, actually. We made it five months, then she made a tearful and demure exit. A couple months later, she asked me for another go; I was seeing someone else and was concerned she didn’t know what she was asking for. We lost touch. I then broke with the other girl, who’s now married and teaching elementary schoolers in the Texas Panhandle.
Two years before, I was squinting in the dark at an Audiogalaxy feature on In the Aeroplane, written by Okkervil River’s Will Sheff. In it, he laid out the concept of the album (still the best I’ve read), and spoke of friends dancing to it at weddings. It was my first exposure to the band. A few months after, I mailed a mix CD to an Art of the Mixer named Amie in upstate New York. The mix was frontloaded with “King of Carrot Flowers,” parts I through III. Pretty obvious, but I knew no better. I loved those songs, and it was months and months until I got to “Ghost.”
You say that transcendence is a departure from one plane to another. But in “Ghost,” there are least five such points, a veritable tube system of incants and dares. There are the first two words; the way frontman Jeff Magnum calls once with familiarity, twice with worship, to his beautiful spirit. There is that moment when Jeremy Barnes, in the best form of his career, drops into the song as a celestial timekeeper, alternating tick-tocks with mighty snare rolls strewn as freely as God’s grace. “A hole where no one can escape,” and how Mangum relishes every word, not with wolfish nihilism but the faith of the redeemed. The marvel in his voice while singing of a baby falling from a skyscraper (“And when her spirit left her body / How it split the sun!”) Jeff cutting the Judeo-Christian sense of sanctification with a feverish embrace of all-connectedness, testifying to the black hole yet evangelizing for the afterlife. There’s Scott Spillane learning horns on faith while he helps to record Indie Nation’s one great blurt. Finally, there is that ecstatic recapitulation of the vocal theme, all zanzithophones and musical saws and a deathless hope that put my Converses to rest in the bedroom closet.
Sheff ended his article with the word “holy.” Outside the church, I’ve heard pretty music and cathartic music and clever music. “Ghost” is those and greater, a rare pop song that chases the shadow of the Almighty. The song’s worldview is a Bosch canvas of atrocities both greater and lesser, and Mr. Mangum chases them with a fury, up to that inescapable hole. His reaction is a peculiar cocktail of Neo-Platonism and a love of the sublime, a blind faith that is stirring precisely in its desperation—but again, I may be hearing the rapping of my own phantoms.
Oh, and as for Kerri’s Stacked Enchiladas, you now know that ‘twas “Ghost” serenaded me as I seethed and screamed in an automobile behind the dumpster. I was a creep right then, spotting five years’ emotional maturity to my peers. She was having a great night, and I was grousing over an abdicated role. Hell, I didn’t look too closely; she might not’ve even been inside that Thursday. Doesn’t matter. I mainly regret misusing the greatest song ever.