On Avery Island is a difficult piece to assess. Though it is Neutral Milk Hotel’s debut album, for the vast majority of listeners, it grew up in the shadow of In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, released two years later.
As such, evaluating On Avery Island as an album independently is no easy task. There is a stalwart coalition of fans who will maintain to the end that On Avery Island is the superior work, but the general consensus is quite the opposite. In the Aeroplane Over the Sea has become a legend in indie circles of epic proportions, and, truth be told, if it had never come to be, a lot of those stalwarts would never have heard of either Neutral Milk Hotel nor On Avery Island. In fact, a whole lot of Elephant 6 Recording Company’s artists would likely be much less popular. (There’s a joke in here about the elephant in the room).
In this respect, On Avery Island both benefits and suffers from Neutral Milk Hotel’s subsequent success. It may not live up to the high expectations one might have, but then, one’s more likely to give it a chance if they’ve already fallen in love with In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. And this is important, because On Avery Island is a good album, worthy of being part of Neutral Milk Hotel’s catalogue. I’m embarrassed to admit it, but I didn’t like In the Aeroplane Over the Sea right away (it was at least until the title track before I thought there might be something to it), and if I had been initiated via On Avery Island, I may never have come to appreciate Mangum’s allure.
Like the albums of many bands that have later gone on to great acclaim, On Avery Island contains a lot of what makes Neutral Milk Hotel great without quite clearing the last hurdles. The lo-fi production has some charm, but also is grating at many points; it’s often difficult to listen to at high volumes. The songs tend to have a similar feel to each other and everything tends to be at the same volume. Worst of all is that Jeff’s voice is relatively low in the mix, even though it’s still the centre-piece of the band. Also, the last song is not a great example of noise rock, and is judiciously cut from nearly fourteen minutes to three and a half from the digital version to the vinyl.
Still, the album has its high points. The lyrics are generally evocative and explore Mangum’s experiences, mostly to do with love and loss. There are also numerous drug references, though they largely centre around avoiding them and discouraging others from using them. On the opening track, Song Against Sex, one of the best songs, he implores: “But don’t take those pills your boyfriend gave you, you’re too wonderful to die.” Despite the often celebratory sounding horn accompaniments, death and suicide are prominent themes throughout.
The highlight of On Avery Island is the one-two punch of Naomi and April 8th, which are second and third last; the release probably would have been better leaving things off with just these two, rather than continuing on to the aforementioned Pree-Sisters Swallowing a Donkey’s Eye. Both Naomi and April 8th contribute most of the dynamism to the album, offering slow, softer portions without cacophonous clutter behind them. The weeping organs on Naomi create a sombre atmosphere of desire and foreshadow the future of Neutral Milk Hotel. Fun fact: The song is written about Naomi Yang (Galaxie 500, Damon and Naomi), and she went on to make a video for it almost twenty years later:
On Avery Island, however, is not a terribly cohesive album. The main exception to this would be A Baby for Pree and Where You’ll Find me Now, which I initially had to ensure weren’t the same song, accidentally tracked twice. And really, I think they are the same song, with the noisy instrumental Marching Theme thrown in between. It seems to me that the chords and vocal melody are the same, as though Baby for Pree were the first verse or so of the rest of the song. You’ll have to judge for yourself, though.
Beyond that, On Avery Island is a collection of songs, not a concept album. This is fine, it just doesn’t quite have the same grip as In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. Fun fact #2: Avery Island is an island in Louisiana, near the Gulf of Mexico, best known for its production of McIlhenny Tabasco sauce, and not for having an album named after it.
Lyrically, On Avery Island doesn’t appear to have much to do with the island, nor does it feature a carnival as the cover art would suggest, and it is not close to Mangum’s hometown of Ruston, Louisiana, on the other side of the state. Taken together, these facts are as depressing as the subject matter itself. Maybe that was the point, and maybe it’s more cohesive than I think, but I doubt it.