Surrealistic imagery and kaleidoscopic melodies might imply hippie-damaged psychedelia, but Neutral Milk Hotel's stunning latest album, "In the Aeroplane Over the Sea," evokes a much wider span of signifiers. Band leader Jeff Mangum's creative vision incorporates indie noise and punk riffs, mariachi horns and uilleann pipes, singing saw and tape collage, mournful strums and exuberant organ. Mangum seems not so much blurred by hallucinogens as made dizzy by the expansive wonders of the natural world. Or, as he triumphantly sings on the record's title track, by "how strange it is to be anything at all."
Mangum's current reality of calling cards and tour buses is fairly removed from his ideal existence. Hailing from isolated Ruston, La. (population 15,000), his only link to musical diversity came through the local college radio station. With some like-minded friends, Mangum volunteered as a DJ and gained access to sounds few in town knew or cared about.
"All through our childhood we were completely flooded by underground music, and we were able to perceive it any way we wanted because there was no scene, no zines, no clubs, no kids," Mangum says. "We found a lot of what seemed to be missing from our daily lives. So we had a deep appreciation for all kinds of music, and when we started making our own music, there was a very special, magical quality to it."
Mangum and his friends left Ruston and formed separate bands -- Apples in Stereo, Olivia Tremor Control, and Neutral Milk Hotel -- and they've remained close collaborators in a musical collective called Elephant Six. Mangum initially drifted between Denver, New York and Athens, Ga., while writing and recording songs with assorted friends.
Neutral Milk Hotel's 1996 album, "On Avery Island," is an exquisite low-fi mishmash that Mangum describes as "an extension of my insular, four-track world." He subsequently recruited three bandmates for the recording of "In the Aeroplane" -- a reflection of the group's growth and a more cohesive and confident effort than their debut.
While Neutral Milk Hotel has blossomed into one of indie pop's strongest voices, Mangum is ready to return to a simpler, rooted life. "I'm getting to where I want to settle down and live in the forest," he says. "I don't like the way we're so disconnected from nature. I'm going to move up to the Ozarks and not have a telephone, or computer, or television, or newspapers."
Life in the woods may further focus Mangum's approach to art rock, which already owes more to Emerson and Thoreau than Emerson, Lake & Palmer. From the aeroplane over the sea to the mountains of Arkansas, welcome to the new American transcendentalism.