Those lucky enough to catch Mangum live, now that he’s performing again, can attest to the power of his voice. He has earned a certain quality that allows him to both fill and command a room. As incredible as Holland, 1945 sounds in the recording with a full band behind him and a mix of warbled noises, it’s equally, if not more breathtaking when Mangum performs it acoustic - it’s stunning that alone he can express the full emotional register of these pieces. Ferris Wheel on Fire, more than anything, is a testament to a certain style that Mangum has tapped into - that ability to deeply connect with his listener.
Ferris Wheel on Fire is a collection of eight early Neutral Milk Hotel tracks, several of which were previously unreleased or are present here in a different form. Aside from small bits of melodica and singing saw, the tracks are all acoustic, just Mangum and his guitar. They’re mastered similarly to how we find the band later on. The listener is dearly close to Mangum. We can feel the texture of the strings, hear him singing right before us.
Even this early, Mangum’s vocals evoke strong images and emotions. His imagery is often slightly abnormal or grotesque, and this helps to make the subject stronger. In Oh, Sister, he sings of “blisters on your grandmother’s jewelry,” and in A Baby for Pree / Glow Into You that Pree must, “pour her babies all across the bathroom floor.” He uses small bits of alliteration, “bright and bubbly,” and “swollen and small.” There’s a strong sense of physicality to it all, and it helps to make the listener feel like they’re a part of Mangum working through this all. When we hear him sing to the character of his sister, “I won’t be nailing you down… just like the rest of them,” it creates a horrid image. It’s not simply cheap grotesque imagery for shock value. Mangum doesn’t use it for this - it’s an expression of something greater for him. The amalgam of these strong lyrics and the personal evocation of his performance style create powerful pieces.
In many ways these songs are stronger than some of those that made it to On Avery Island. The album, particularly when compared to Aeroplane, lacks a certain maturity. Ferris Wheel, though comprised of early songs, revels in the strength of Mangum alone. Perhaps it benefits from our later associations with Mangum - it’s possible - but they’re all strong pieces here. Most interesting might be seeing the bits and pieces that would come to be the final songs that fill out Neutral Milk Hotel’s two proper albums. On Oh, Sister we hear about Goldaline (who will later pop up in Oh, Comely), he also sings “bright and bubbly” and “to prove that she must still exist,” both of which will turn up in Aeroplane. This is one track, but we can see throughout the collection Mangum learning his eventual tricks. In I Will Bury You In Time the vocals rise and double toward the end. Finally Mangum trails off singing, “dee dee dee dee.”
This is a hard album to assign a quality to. It’s more a historical record than an piece of art to be judged. In that sense, it’s a wonderful listen for any Neutral Milk Hotel fan (of which there are deservingly many). On the track Engine, Mangum sings, “I’m holding on through endless revisions to state what I mean.” And it’s this that we get to see. The songs on Aeroplane that have affected so many began inside these tracks. That’s enough to make this an interesting listen - that they’re good songs makes it all the better.