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Neutral Milk Hotel - On Avery Island Music Album Reviews

Each Sunday, Pitchfork takes an in-depth look at a significant album from the past, and any record not in our archives is eligible. Today, we revisit the oft-overshadowed debut from indie rock icons, a smaller and more intimate look into the mercurial world of Jeff Mangum.
In the mid-’90s, Jeff Mangum moved into a haunted closet in Denver where he had dreams of women in fur coats drinking champagne, yelling at him to get out of their house. During a snowy Colorado winter, the Louisiana-born songwriter and his childhood friend Robert Schneider set about recording what would become Neutral Milk Hotel’s debut album. They worked feverishly, going out to smoke cigarettes when they hit a roadblock, until, in May of 1995, they had a finished record. The North Carolina indie label Merge scooped up the young band and quietly released On Avery Island the following March.

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Bruce Springsteen - Western Stars Music Album Reviews

Bruce Springsteen returns with elegiac and wise songwriting conjuring the golden expanse of the American West; it’s his best studio album in years.

The voices in Western Stars are old and restless, lost and wandering. On the title track, Bruce Springsteen sings from the perspective of an actor who once worked with John Wayne but now mostly does commercials—credit cards, Viagra. Elsewhere, we meet a stuntman whose body has been destroyed by the job, a lonely widower idling in his old parking spot, and a failed country songwriter wondering if any of the sacrifices he made in his youth were worth it. Sung in a defeated growl, this latter track is among the shortest, starkest things that Springsteen has ever recorded: an acknowledgment of how quickly a song—and life—can pass by.


That song is called “Somewhere North of Nashville,” and it’s an outlier on Springsteen’s 19th studio album, both geographically and musically. On the rest of the record, Springsteen, with producer Ron Aniello, aims to conjure the golden expanse of the American West, with sweeping orchestral accompaniments unlike anything in his catalog. Springsteen albums are usually grand affairs but he’s never made one that sounds so vast and luxurious throughout. Paired with the down-and-out characters who haunt its mountains and canyons, the purposefully anachronistic arrangements—recalling jukeboxes, FM radios, sepia-toned montages, faded memories—carry an elegiac tone. It’s been a long time since popular music sounded like this, and it ties these characters to an era as much as a place.

Neither is where you expect to find Springsteen, who turns 70 this fall. He has spent the last few years drawing attention to the most beloved corners of his career, from lovingly curated box sets and live releases to an anniversary tour behind 1980’s commercial breakthrough The River. His nostalgic bent culminated in two presentations of his life story: a 500-page memoir and a one-man Broadway show. Both begin with a wink toward his self-described fraudulence—an “absurdly successful” entertainer who made his fortune by telling stories of blue-collar workers—and end with solemn prayers and reflections on mortality. In the book, Springsteen discusses the struggles with depression that have threatened to derail him over the past 10 years. “Mentally, just when I thought I was in the part of my life where I’m supposed to be cruising,” he writes, “My sixties were a rough, rough ride.”

All this looking back plays into the music of Western Stars. “Hell, these days there ain’t no ‘more,’” he sighs in the title track, “Now there’s just ‘again.’” Repetition and waiting course through the record as constants—sunrise, sunset. There’s a song called “Chasin’ Wild Horses” that prescribes its title as a means of counterbalancing pain; the arrangement grows more romantic as the chorus hardens into a routine. Springsteen’s narrative writing has always served to reflect his host of anxieties outward. A darkening mindset and feelings of isolation in his early 30s inspired him to summon the hellbound outsiders and dark highways of Nebraska; navigating his first marriage resulted in the doubt-plagued domestic portraits on 1987’s Tunnel of Love. During his exhaustive live shows, he is known to venture into the crowd to be swarmed by the community that’s united by his work. In the studio, he has to invent it himself: a sea of faces where he can find his own reflection. Western Stars transports him to a ghost town of broken male narrators, alone with their never-ending work and shortening timelines. He sings to us from somewhere among them, looking wearily beyond.

Following 2012’s Wrecking Ball and 2014’s High Hopes—records that responded to current political issues and sought to modernize the E Street Band’s rock’n’roll exorcisms with loops and samples and Tom Morello—this music is a left turn. The stories, however, remain archetypically Springsteen. Occasionally, he sounds like he’s checking in with characters from his songbook, furthering them along or bidding them farewell. For those wild spirits who worked 9 to 5 and somehow survived till the night, there’s “Sundown,” a tour through a bittersweet twilight where you long for companionship. After all his promises of escape—these two lanes that could take us anywhere—there’s the hardened narrator of “Hello Sunshine,” cautioning that “miles to go is miles away.”

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And while nearly every one of Springsteen’s road songs is sung from the driver's seat, this record opens with “Hitch Hikin’,” a folk song propelled by a gentle windmill of strings, sung by a drifter with nowhere to go. He invites us into the backseats of three cars, whose drivers stand in for the pillars of Springsteen’s career. There’s a father, a trucker headed toward a big open highway, and a solitary racer in a vintage model from 1972, which also happens to be the year that Springsteen scored his record deal with Columbia. These avatars introduce a record that favors new sounds and perspectives—he often sings as a shadow or a visitor, giving credence to a recently revealed habit for crashing strangers’ funerals—but remains carefully rooted in his history. David Sancious, an early collaborator who played the virtuosic piano solo in 1973’s “New York City Serenade,” returns here to guide “The Wayfarer” to its tragic-triumphant conclusion. His jazzy touch on the keys offsets the thump of Springsteen’s acoustic guitar and the earthy twang of his baritone, as open-hearted and desperate as it has ever sounded.

In this song, Springsteen reframes his wanderlust in a series of confessions. He acknowledges that put in his position most people would be happy with what they have. He knows his worries are nothing new. The title of Western Stars is a phrase that also appears in “Ulysses,” a 19th-century Tennyson poem that Springsteen has drawn from before. (Another, more ubiquitous, Tennyson quote is invoked at the end of this record: “It’s better to have loved,” he sings in “Moonlight Motel,” his voice trailing off.) It’s easy to see why Springsteen finds resonance in these particular texts: defining works by a grief-stricken poet wondering if our brief, complicated lives are worth the legacy we leave behind. “Ulysses” is narrated by a hero approaching old age, returning from a long journey only to realize he felt more fulfilled on the road. So he heads out again, “to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.” And stay alive, if he can.


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