On Avery Island // Neutral Milk Hotel

The album cover for Neutral Milk Hotel's On Avery Island

All I perceive is wasted and broken.

I don’t want to just be the curator of the museum of hot takes. Clearly, I’ve already done that a bit: I’m sure you’re pulling out your hair at the exclusion of an album that probably deserves to be in here. And I’m sure you’ve contended with my rankings of, say, Beatles albums, or my fondness for albums that are… fine. But this might be this list’s most contrarian take, and I think it’s an important one to actually back up in writing.

So, yeah. I think On Avery Island is better than In the Aeroplane Over the Sea.

It’s obviously not that the latter is bad. But, as time has gone on, I’ve found it to be a less interesting listen. I think truly great albums have a way of maintaining their brilliance, and the shine on Neutral Milk Hotel’s magnum opus has dimmed a little as the years have gone on.

If you look at Neutral Milk Hotel’s most popular Spotify songs, ITAOTS dominates. Not a single song from On Avery Island. Which I think is a little ridiculous, because these songs are so good.

Thinking about it, though, it makes sense. One of the things I love about On Avery Island is how strongly it flows from one song to the next. It’s hard to pick out individual tracks because it’s such a solid album experience. There’s a really strong triplet here of “Where You’ll Find Me Now” / “Avery Island / April 1st” / “Gardenhead / Leave Me Alone.” But all of these feel like one longer song, like the entire album is a self-contained odyssey.

It’s got a lot of delicious grit to it, a crunchiness that coats the entire album. It is a bit of a carnival, dancing and cackling with a decrepit dedication. The distorted keyboards and looping cassette feel of this album create an eerie but friendly ambience, a sinister ally waiting like a crocodile in the swamp.

A painting by outsider artist Henry Darger

Lyrically, it’s phenomenal. “Song Against Sex” spills out like a true confessional, a description of disgust and fever not unlike Raskolnikov’s delirium in Crime and Punishment. It rambles with vivid imagery, hypnotically leaping from one idea to the next. And the brass breakdown at the end? Perfectly leads into the tragic yelping of “You’ve Passed.”

I have a tendency to focus on lyricism as a vehicle for storytelling, or the album as a grander piece with a concrete message. What I like about On Avery Island is quite the opposite. It has this feeling of musical cohesion, but its lyrics are a Jackson Pollock painting, just there because they sound good. With all the chaos of this album, I kind of love that. If I were to take anything away from this album, it would probably have to do with that chaos. The frenzy of drugs and sex of life is an anarchic one, and it is that anarchic feeling that On Avery Island conveys so well.