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At Your Funeral: Neutral Milk Hotel – “Ghost”

on January 25, 2010, 3:45pm

It’s a peculiar thing to think about, choosing music for my own funeral. After all, by definition, I won’t be there to hear it, so it’s one part “What do I want my friends and family to hear?” and one part “What would they actually want to hear?” It’s nice to think about particular songs that I find moving, like Bayside’s gorgeous ode “Winter”, but that’s the sort of song my friends would have to pick. I can’t ask for a tribute song like that; I’d have to earn it. So what song would I pick for myself? It’s one part for me, and one part for those I’d leave behind: Neutral Milk Hotel’s “Ghost”.

That song would be appropriate for so many reasons. There are moments, in fact, all over the entire album In The Aeroplane Over the Sea, which would fit the funereal theme quite nicely. I’m a music fan for whom lyrics are almost everything, and there are lyrics on this album that chill my blood in the most pleasant way. “Holland 1945”, for example, features the lovely lines “But now he rides a comet’s flame/and won’t be coming back again/The Earth looks better from a star/that’s right above from where you are,” which I have always personally found comforting. The imagery of passed loved ones floating through the fabric of our everyday world is both eerie and reassuring. Images of beauty and death weave together throughout the album to create a lushly multi-layered sense of both loss and comfort.

Then again, I’m also a girl with a love for pure sound, and In The Aeroplane…‘s got plenty of that. I adore the raw, acoustic guitar on particular pieces of that album, especially “Two-Headed Boy Pt 2”. Singer Jeff Mangum’s voice rises, open and unvarnished, over the guitar with a chilling clarity that stirs a feeling in my heart which can only be described as love. It also ends on a line that perfectly captures the dual feelings of sadness and anger which survivors of the deceased sometimes feel: “But don’t hate her when she gets up to leave.”

But it’s “Ghost” which moves me the most, “Ghost” with which I would leave the people I hold most dear. Sonically, the music rips open at the beginning of the track, starting with a quietly strumming acoustic guitar, and exploding into a wild bouquet of pumping bass, passionate guitar, and explosive bursts of drum, which perfectly back but never overwhelm Mangum’s heart-breakingly steady voice. Lyrically, the song is both disturbing and calming, upsetting and cheerful: the essential balance of life and death, sadness and joy, neither possible without the other.  ”Ghost, ghost/I know you live within me”, he begins plaintively, building in even, controlled increments towards an almost-wail.

The song continues with the image of a young woman jumping from a burning building. “And when her spirit left her body/how it split the sun/I know that she will live forever/All goes on and on and on.” Taking the story from the physical to the cosmic, the tragic to the beautiful in just one line, Mangum perfectly captures the essence of life and death as I understand it, the necessary existence of both the light and the dark present in a single image. His voice builds up and up and up, scaffolding towards the sky as the song reaches its climax: “She goes and now she knows she’ll never be afraid.” There is no happier thought, no more comforting embrace, with which I could hope to leave the people I love. If someday you play just one song for me, friends, play this one.

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