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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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Yohuna - Mirroring Music Album Reviews

On her second album, singer and songwriter Johanne Swanson is wiser, steadier, and more willing to explore. Her music now feels like an expression of emotional epiphanies.

Johanne Swanson’s debut album as Yohuna, Patientness, narrated her nomadic tendencies and countered their turbulence with evocative, delicate synth-pop. Now settled in Brooklyn, Swanson has a newfound grasp on stability, and her second album, Mirroring, demonstrates the personal growth she’s undergone between LP releases. Reaping the benefits of “a lot of time in therapy,” her music now feels like an expression of emotional epiphanies. More heterogeneous than the steady tranquility of Patientness, Mirroring allows Swanson to float between new aesthetics: Grand, shoegazey guitars and classical strings are a striking left turn, especially to those who’ve followed Yohuna since her early industrial-tinged EP, Revery.


In Swanson's words, Mirroring is “a metaphor for psychological projection,” and the title track takes a straightforward approach to the concept: “What’s you?/What do you see/And choose not to?” she sings, a tough-love invitation to evaluate (and maybe scrutinize) yourself through her lens. On the optimistic “Stranger,” she flips the idea, admiring the “calm confidence” of an elusive subject: “Strange how I’m your mirror.” Mirroring goes both ways; Swanson’s journey of self-discovery has enabled her to examine others’ traits in relation to her own. The wisdom she’s gained is palpable.

That’s evident in the album’s astute breakup songs, where Swanson explores shattered relationships from multiple angles. The well-wishing “Fades to Blue” realizes lessons from past lovers in her own “thank u, next”-style prose: “Thanks for showing me my truth/Not all pathways lead to you.” She reminisces fondly as she lets go (“I wish I wasn’t blacked out during our first kiss/I made my bed so you would come over and sit on it”), even as she regrets not having been entirely present in the moment. “Waiting” aches in a partner’s absence, asking, “When is the perfect day that doesn’t start with you?” On “Dead to Me,” the usually cordial Swanson sounds near furious as she recalls an inexcusable betrayal by someone she once held close. “Can’t consent when you withheld the truth/Yeah, you’re dead to me, too,” she sings, the drawn-out “too” implying the sting of mutual animosity.

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Swanson wrote and co-produced every song here, but the additional performers include some familiar names: frequent (Sandy) Alex G collaborator Emily Yacina, Told Slant’s Felix Walworth, Foxes in Fiction’s Warren Hildebrand (founder of Swanson’s label, Orchid Tapes), and LVL UP’s Mike Caridi and Greg Rutkin, among others. Though Patientness was similarly a group effort, Mirroring sounds less cohesive in the latter half. “Mirroring” and “Dead to Me” feature piercing guitar whammies. The gentle strums on “Waiting” recall the hazy acoustics of Hovvdy or Elvis Depressedly, and “Stranger” gives way to a cello solo. Reverbed vocals in “Find a Quiet Place” are swallowed by a run of harp arpeggios, which, while stunning, feel rather out of place in the middle of an otherwise modern-sounding album. Rather than blending these ideas into a unique sound, Mirroring’s songs remain compartmentalized, giving the album as a whole an air of disarray. It feels especially ironic on a project that aims to illustrate how Swanson has found center. Still, her weighty lyricism and intellectual acuity testify to artistic maturation. Yohuna’s identity is still mutable, but on Mirroring, Johanne Swanson seems much more assured.


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