Neutral Milk Hotel is a band that is pretty much as old as I am, and yet they were a great favourite of mine back in high school. I've always loved their work, but I let it fade out of focus for me because I knew the band broke up in 1998. Thinking I would never be able to appreciate any new classics from the group was disappointing, so I kept my old favourites but never dreamt of anything more. Recently, however, the group has gotten back together and even released an EP called Ferris Wheel On Fire, which I was very excited to be able to hear.
Ferris Wheel On Fire begins with Oh Sister, a track with the warm, rolling riffs, fluid, bouncy rhythm, and whaling vocals I have come to expect from Neutral Milk Hotel. The song contains themes of nostalgia, rural life, Catholicism, history, and burial. It's difficult to tell if the sexual comments of the song are of an incestuous nature, or if the sister of the song is a nun. Either way, the song is transgressive while still recalling a preservation of what it violates. Integrated into this narrative is a medley of lyrics from past works, blinking in and out. These elements in conjunction with the warm, swift movements of the song result in an opening which is incredibly dizzying and yet perfectly apt for Neutral Milk Hotel's return.
Things calm down with the title track, Ferris Wheel On Fire. This tragic song about a midway accident is relaxed but chilling with Dylan-esque vocals. I thought it was interesting how this song took a typical Neutral Milk Hotel riff and gave it a twist by adding a pause for dramatic effect. The impulse to read some symbolic meaning into the accident is overwhelming — is it the falling apart of romantic relationship, or of life as we know it? Either way, the song conveys an insurmountable feeling of lostness.
Home is bright, more upbeat and faster, but true to Neutral Milk Hotel style, clings to lyrical themes of family dysfunction. As a seasoned listener, I should know better than to expect a happy song from them that doesn't secretly convey some dark, depressing motif! The biggest pick-me-up, however, was a wonderful accordion solo, reminiscent of the millennial fair from the SNES game Chrono Trigger. This song will either make you dance or make you go insane. Don't worry, both are good for you!
A visitor from the earlier album On Avery Island, April 8th, is colder and darker than one would expect from such a lovely spring date. If I were an indie film director making a movie about someone walking alone on a cloudy day, this would be the theme song. This song is a vampire that will drain you of energy and leave you feeling hollow.
I Will Bury You In Time, the next track, has an incredibly interesting title: is it about actually burying someone, or about forgetting them? It feels like a song about getting over and moving on. The riffs are like the rolling waves of the ocean and the wailing vocals are like a mariner singing across the sea. The sea is isolating, and yet he is still connected to whatever lies across that horizon. He is still hopeful about the future, and he has overcome many tribulations. That is what drives him on; that is how he knows he can continue.
Engine is hardly mechanical. It begins with the singing saw, a favourite of this group. Its slow, restful, calming sound and hallucinogenic, nonsensical lyrics make it the perfect lullaby. Reason fades away and what remains is a feeling of peace in a mystic connection to the universe.
A Baby for Pree/Glow Into You is another classic from On Avery Island, though this time it has subtle variations from the original. This exceptionally weird, happy hippie song is another return to madness with its gleeful, rolling riff. In my opinion, the original performance was more passionate, but it's always nice to see a refreshing new version of an old love.
My Dreamgirl Don't Exist could be my new favourite song. The track has a slight rockabilly vibe that's difficult to put your finger on but could easily be revisioned as a 90s era alt rock song (à la Weezer). The song begins with a story about how the ideal girl of the song's central character commits suicide, but as the song goes on, it suggests the idea that there are millions of amazing incredible people in the world who will live and die and we will never meet them. For every person who feels alone and unloved, there is always someone somewhere out there who could have been their soulmate but who will never meet them. These are the exact kinds of sad, beautiful moments that make me a Neutral Milk Hotel fan.
After listening to Ferris Wheel On Fire, I feel like it is a great EP with lots of interesting new content that stays true to Neutral Milk Hotel's typical sound. The songs are arranged in such a way that they can be a bit of an emotional rollercoaster. It might have been better if the tracks has been arranged in such a way as to give it a better flow. Nonetheless, taken on their own, each track is a beautiful emotional journey.