by Dylan Shearer
“Holland, 1945” by Neutral Milk Hotel
World War Two has not generally inspired many great songs. While it has inspired countless books, movies, and video games, there is a dearth of modern music about WWII. There is a multitude of reasons for this, namely, “Adolf Hitler” does not rhyme with much and “The Lend-Lease Act” does not really lend itself to pop music lyrics. It also came about before America’s mainstream rock music developed a consciousness, so unlike with the Vietnam War there are not classics centered around it.
This, of course, does not mean that there are 0 good songs about WWII. In fact, we are here to talk about the best song written about WWII “Holland, 1945” by Neutral Milk Hotel. Neutral Milk Hotel is best known as the go-to reference for annoying hipster bands, as well as for their one and only album In the Aeroplane Over the Sea and the subsequent meltdown of lead singer/songwriter Jeff Mangum. While Aeroplane has its highs and lows and is probably generally overrated, “Holland, 1945” is the standout track. The one true banger on the whole album.
“Holland, 1945” start with the one of the best count offs in music history, with Mangum’s “2, 1,2,3,4” setting the stage for the blistering thrill ride to follow. After the count off, which Girl Talk was able to use quite effectively in his work, the song comes out of the gate at a furious pace, all scuzzed out guitars paying the main riff while cleaned up guitars play the same riff on top. This is great on its own but even better in the context of the album where it comes after a much slower-paced song. The song then continues in this riff adding horns to give the song the air of a carnival run-off the rails, until the end when it ends with a fan-fare-esque horn blast. It’s all very good.
But the music is not the sole place where “Holland, 1845” shines. The lyrics are perhaps the biggest standout of the entire piece. Mangum is able to craft imagery that truly shows the horrors of WWII in a way that both works with the music and does not get lost in the tune. It also never becomes overwrought, with Mangum’s high voice broadcasting true emotion over the horns and guitars. Lyrics like:
“Now she’s a little boy in Spain / Playing pianos filled with flames / On empty rings around the sun / All sing to say my dream has come” ,
“And now we ride the circus wheel /With your dark brother wrapped in white / Says it was good to be alive / But Now he rides a comet’s flame / and he won’t be coming back again”, or
“And here’s where your mother sleeps / And here is the room where your brother were born / Indentions in the sheets / Where their bodies once moved but don’t move anymore / And it’s so sad to see the world agree / That they’d rather see their faces filled with flies / All when I’d want to keep white roses in their eyes”.
These all evoke tremendous emotion within the listener and convey the sense of horror that existed during WWII. All while being part of a propulsive song that helps the lyrics truly hit home.
This is a great song. Listen to it.