It’s always been polarizing. Some deride it as overrated and unlistenable, others claim it’s among the greatest records ever made. And they’re both kindof right. It has become kind of a hipster signifier – something obscure that proves your rock snob credibility. But, it can be a difficult listen; the odd arrangements and Mangum’s forceful but unconventional voice immediately turn off a lot of people. But, hey, if people get past Dylan’s voice, they should be able to manage this. And while it might not be obvious to all NMH fans, since he is not as well known as maybe he should be, the NMH sound owes a lot to Syd Barrett’s solo work. Nonetheless, this is better than Barrett’s solo work – the songs are better, the lyrics are better, the production is better, the concepts are better. NMH took Barrett’s vocal style and his broke-down psychedelic folk-song thing and created a fascinating record.
The music often sounds like a ramshackle psychedelic marching band, careening and wheezing, spinning, thundering behind Jeff Mangum’s howling vocals. Other times it’s Mangum singing with just an acoustic guitar (this is where the Barrett influence is most pronounced). Either way, Mangum’s lyrics are the focus. While I don’t think NMH has ever claimed that this is a “rock-opera”, the songs do seem to form a narrative of sorts. Or, at the very least, there’s enough shared imagery and common themes (in the words and the music) that one can’t help but assume there’s a story behind all of it. His words are vague and opaque, but as I hear it, this record is a story about children in Europe during WWII (Anne Frank, in particular), the death of family, the afterlife. So, alternately sad and uplifting.
It’s best to hear this one all at once, too. The story I’ve constructed for it, though vague, and dark, is beautiful. And everything on the record seems crafted towards telling it. So, I want to hear it all.
Or maybe it’s all in my head. (Well, of course it is. This is music appreciation: it’s going to be all in my head either way.)