Classic Record Review: “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea” by Neutral Milk Hotel (1998)

neutra-inthea_06In honor of the fact that I just bought tickets to see Neutral Milk Hotel at the end of the month (!!!), I thought I would take a stab at reviewing the band’s magnum opus, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea.

This record is full of amazing moments, all perfectly sequenced straight from the visionary mind of Neutral Milk Hotel frontman Jeff Mangum. Here, he created a world that brings to mind the same imagery as the cover art: a faded, surreal universe that evokes the early twentieth century, somewhere in a coastal European country. At its core, this album is really just a set of acoustic indie classics, with simple chords and creatively poetic lyrics written by Mangum. But that’s only the skeleton of this record. These songs are embellished with brassy horns, fuzzy guitar, organs and bagpipes and a hundred other unidentifiable sounds. What makes it all work so well? We can only guess.

All I know is, there’s a reason why this album has inspired such a fervent cult following, and why it is one of the historic heights of indie music. In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is a cathartic and beautiful journey from start to finish. It’s an immaculately crystallized snapshot of the fascinating inner workings of a genius’s mind. How fitting that this album was recorded at a place called Pet Sounds Studio. But at first, I hated it. I couldn’t stand Mangum’s nasally voice, which he strains to the breaking point through the course of this record. But then I realized that the only reason he does this is because he has so much to say, and he has to say it with as much expression as possible because these words need  to leave his lips.

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The songwriting here is something to marvel at. I know this album’s connection to Anne Frank has been overstated, but multiple songs from this album could be read as love letters to her. Jeff Mangum echoes the things we all feel when faced with events like the Holocaust: bewildered fear at the enormity of life and death, and the manic desire to be happy and find love. Also, Mangum’s obsession with bodily fluids rivals that of Kurt Cobain. He speaks of things that are warm and wet, soft and sweet. Milk and semen are vital subjects of his songs. In one song, the short and pretty “Communist Daughter”, Mangum sings that “semen stains the mountaintops”. It’s a potent reminder that sex is everywhere.

Inspiring and tear-jerking melodies make up every line of In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. It’s as if Jeff Mangum took all of the songwriting ideas that had ever crossed his mind, every poetic impulse he’s ever had, and culled them down to only the most gut-wrenchingly beautiful ones. And when surrounded with poignant trumpet lines and trombone melodies, it’s almost too much to bear. Perhaps the reason why it is so hard to describe this album is that it’s so unlike anything else. It’s completely original, completely unique. It sounds like In the Aeroplane Over the Sea and nothing else. That’s what separates Neutral Milk Hotel from their peers in the Elephant 6 collective. The other Elephant 6 bands sounded like indie rock updates of the best music of the late sixties, while Neutral Milk Hotel sound only like themselves.

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The album opens with a few guitar chords that morph into the gorgeous tale of familial dysfunction that is “The King of Carrot Flowers, Pt. One”. Parts two and three of the tale make up the next track, a raucous and fuzzy song with exhilarating drum patterns. The ensuing title track is one of the best songs I’ve ever heard, miraculously using guitar chords that even I can play if I focus hard enough. Then comes “Two-Headed Boy”, a spare, purely acoustic examination of what it means to be male. Think about that title. “The Fool” arrives next, an Eastern European-sounding funeral march instrumental, stuffed with horns and ponderous drums. “Holland, 1945” is a blast of fuzzy greatness that has the most direct lyrical connection to Anne Frank on the album. It’s one of my personal favorites.

Holland_45_singleAfter the short, effects-laden “Communist Daughter” comes “Oh Comely”, the closest thing to a  folk epic that Neutral Milk Hotel ever achieved. It’s a dark and solemn eight minute track with not a second wasted. The more uplifting musically, but lyrically grim “Ghost” follows, and then a truly bizarre untitled instrumental that features a catchy bagpipe line, thunderous drums, carnivalesque electronics, and what sounds like a children’s choir. The final track, “Two-Headed Boy Pt. 2”, begins with an ominous singing saw and ends with the sound of Mangum putting down his guitar. In between is a glorious coda to the album, with one of the most emotional melodies Mangum could muster, as well as a reprise of the “Two-Headed Boy” theme.

Whew. Even writing that makes me want to listen to the album again. It’s that kind of record. One that enters your soul and never leaves. But, to me, what gives this album its endless appeal and classic status is that it has a homey and organic feel to it. It’s rough around the edges. The horns and bagpipes sound slightly out of tune and off-balance, Mangum’s voice cracks and strains, and some of the sound effects are whimsically random. It’s easy to love because it feels so odd and awkward, which anyone could relate to. This is a record to talk about endlessly, to get tattoos of, to make fan art for, and whatever else the crazy Neutral Milk Hotel fan base is doing nowadays. This is a record to treasure.

Best song: “Holland, 1945”

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Rating: 10 out of 10

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3 Comments

  1. Hey Noah – I’m at IndieRockCafe.com – we’d like to invite you to contribute to our fairly well known blog – please contact me – Thanks – Phil

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