The Student Playlist

Showcasing the Best New Music, Curating the Classics

CULT ’90s: Neutral Milk Hotel – ‘In The Aeroplane Over The Sea’

Influenced: Animal Collective, Bright Eyes, Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, Wilco, The Mountain Goats, Okkervil River, Modest Mouse, The Shins, Deerhunter, Sufjan Stevens, Arcade Fire, The Decemberists, Beirut, Laura Gibson, Joanna Newsom, Deer Tick, Titus Andronicus, The Antlers, Bon Iver, The Tallest Man On Earth, Father John Misty

Influenced by: Bob Dylan, The Beatles, The Beach Boys, Syd Barrett, R.E.M., Sonic Youth, Guided By Voices, Sebadoh, The Flaming Lips, Elliott Smith

In the recent history of indie music, few albums come with as much speculation, legend and attendant baggage of mystery as In The Aeroplane Over The Sea, the second and (seemingly) final album from Jeff Mangum’s Neutral Milk Hotel.

In The Aeroplane Over The Sea is a work that invites deep consideration and thought, because no surface-level analysis or attempt at easy categorisation can do it justice. It’s a collection of disparate threads, of images and words wired back to front and inside-out that flows like the weird logic of fevered dream just before you wake up. No one word can truly do justice to the inarticulate awe that this album inspires among its fans – at first glance, it is hugely impressive, but there’s an endless joy to be had examining all its microscopic component parts.

THEMES

The most obvious theme is that of Anne Frank: specifically, Mangum’s emotional reaction to reading her diary written while she was in hiding in Nazi-occupied Holland before she was discovered and died in a concentration camp. This idea itself is quite striking – while it is of course a deeply affecting work, ‘The Diary of a Young Girl’ was one of the most common books on American school syllabi for decades, so Mangum must have been at least aware of its story before he was so powerfully affected by it when reading it as an adult in the mid-‘90s that he “cried for like three days” and had dreams of travelling back in time to save Frank. It speaks to his unusual sensitivity that he should feel confident enough to construct an entire world from it.

But In The Aeroplane Over The Sea is very far from a concept album – Frank is only alluded to elliptically and on just a handful of occasions. It’s also to do with remembered physical sensations, of the dark surrealism that invades upon our memories of our childhoods and early adolescences when we look back upon them as adults. On yet another, deeper level, it can be interpreted as a record about human connections, about philosophical ideas examined in physical terms. As such, its lyrics often deal with the theme of ‘merging’, of the yearning to literally subsume one’s self with those people and things that we love. A 2015 essay in PopMatters from a Writing and Psychology graduate illuminates these various interwoven themes much more effectively than we are able.

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These various themes interlock and overlap throughout the album, and are acted out against a landscape and chronological context that makes little sense. Mangum does this like a particularly imagistic novelist creates his own private language, bringing his lyrical style to life with a series of vocal performances in which he often sounds like he’s possessed by some external force. His backing band, on the tracks where they’re actually needed, ranges from a traditional indie three-piece of drums, bass and guitar to a sprawling, ramshackle orchestra of antique instruments ranging from flugelhorns to singing saws.

But all the way through, the record derives its curious power from Mangum’s genuine honesty towards his subject matter, whatever that happens to be from song to song, or even from one line to the next. It makes your skin prick with goosebumps one minute and then lifts your heart with joy just moments later. Just as you think you’re beginning to get a hold of In The Aeroplane Over The Sea, on the verge of cracking its complex code, it shifts away and eludes you, leaving the listener surrounded once again with Mangum’s cloud of weird associations.

It’s also an album of very obvious contradictions in sonic terms. It’s lo-fi, and yet feels lush and verdant, rushing from sparse folksiness to brash punk-rock with little to no warning; its themes may be impenetrable, but it’s a very easy record to just sit down and listen to casually. As a result, In The Aeroplane Over The Sea is one of those curious albums where the listener derives from it exactly what they want to – a sense of permanent mystique that its creator has cultivated, either deliberately or simply out of frustration, when he has been asked.

BACKGROUND

Jeff Mangum and Neutral Milk Hotel were part of the Athens, Georgia-based ‘Elephant Six’ collective, which also housed acts such as The Olivia Tremor Control, of Montreal and Apples In Stereo. Together, these acts shared a mutual love for the more experimental end of 1960s pop music but little else on the surface, and a number of the acts began to find success towards the end of the Nineties.

Neutral Milk Hotel had begun in the late ‘80s as a vehicle solely for Mangum’s songwriting, with a handful of demo cassettes recorded while he was sofa-surfing with friends eventually leading to the 1994 EP Everything Is. Following this, Mangum joined forces with Apples In Stereo frontman Robert Schneider and then gradually expanded Neutral Milk Hotel to a full-band entity, to include drummer Jeremy Barnes, and multi-instrumentalists Scott Spillane and Julian Koster. In 1996, a full-length album, On Avery Island, was released to critical local acclaim on rising independent imprint Merge.

VISUAL

The temporal disorientation that In The Aeroplane Over The Sea incites is reflected in the rather striking and strange artwork. Chris Bilheimer, who had done graphic design work for several R.E.M. albums, showed Mangum an old portrait postcard depicting people bathing at a European seaside resort.

“Mangum was always into that old-timey, magic, semi-circus, turn-of-the-century, penny arcade kind of imagery,” Bilheimer said afterward. The image was then cropped and altered, with a faceless disc replacing the head of the girl in the postcard. It’s impossible to define, but the curious cover seems to indicate the grotesque imagery contained within.

SUBSTANCE

In The Aeroplane Over The Sea begins with Mangum immediately leaping in with both feet on the aching ‘The King Of Carrot Flowers, pt.1’. His vocal delivery is earnest but also provocative and powerful, and it’s a style that he carries throughout the record. Lyrically, it seems to deal with fleeting remembrances of adolescent experiences and scarred childhood – “And your mom would stick a fork right into daddy’s shoulder / And your dad would throw the garbage all across the floor / As we would lay and learn what each other’s bodies were for…”.

This segues neatly into ‘The King Of Carrot Flowers, pts.2 & 3’ which bears a fleetingly similar melody but is much rougher, punkier and more distorted, in a way that harks back to Neutral Milk Hotel’s noise-rock phase earlier on in Mangum’s development as a songwriter. From here, the tracks run together seamlessly just like its predecessor On Avery Island. This time, though, there’s a much greater emphasis on shifting dynamics from one track to the next, something aided by once again working with Robert Schneider, who seems to intuit Mangum’s work and how to present it at every turn. His production is lo-fi enough so that you can’t mistake it for anything other than left-of-field, but it’s still accessible enough for anybody to approach.

You can hear this on ‘In The Aeroplane Over The Sea’, whose folky, acoustic flow gradually evolves into a weird presentation that can only be described as sparse maximalism. It’s loud and brash, although everything about its arrangement makes it feel like a quiet song, and it’s a quite brilliant piece of psych-folk, with its multi-tracked singing saws burning themselves onto your memory. Mangum’s lyrics are about the fine differences between love and possession and obsession (“How I would push my fingers through / Your mouth to make those muscles move”).

It’s on display again on next stop is ‘Two-Headed Boy’, in which Mangum sings uncomfortably close to the microphone, and with a throaty fervour that’s pitched between ecstasy and torment. It’s an almost non-stop stream of consciousness that Mangum, on several occasions, sounds like he’s struggling to fit in, and sung with the intensity of a young Bob Dylan accompanied by a rough acoustic guitar background. Physicality, and the yearning to connect spiritually, is dealt with in disturbing imagery, such as “We will take off our clothes / And they’ll be placing fingers through the notches in your spine”, as the track seems to be based on a mutated child’s body preserved in formaldehyde. This is perhaps the most complex example of Mangum’s symbolism, but the image of two entities sharing one flesh is a powerful metaphor for love.

‘The Fool’ is a brief instrumental mood-changer, with a rhythm based on a brass-band funeral march that must have been familiar to Mangum given his Louisiana background. We delve straight back into the hallucinatory imagery on the punky and perky ‘Holland, 1945’, which was In The Aeroplane Over The Sea’s solitary single and the most explicit reference to the continuing Anne Frank theme. The most accessible moment on the album, it buzzes and crackles with distorted energy and heavenly horns, but also contains brilliant couplets like “The only girl I’ve ever loved / Was born with roses in her eyes / But then they buried her alive / One evening 1945”.

Then there’s the strange bridging section of ‘Communist Daughter’ that leads into ‘Oh Comely’, a haunting eight-minute centrepiece that (briefly) threatens to unlock the mystery of what In The Aeroplane Over The Sea is about. Mangum wishes to travel back in time to rescue Frank (“I know they buried her body with others / her sister and mother and 500 families / and will she remember me 50 years later / I wished I could save her in some sort of time machine”), which chimes with the way in which the album seems to shift time and place constantly, and also with its curious turn-of-the-century artwork.

More psych-folk and mutated garage-rock stylings come with ‘Ghost’, which is one of the album’s big ‘rock’ set-pieces that ends in a proper, almost rock’n’roll blowout, like ‘Holland, 1945’ and ‘The King Of Carrot Flowers, pts.2 & 3’. Given the impressive ending, this would seem like a natural place for In The Aeroplane Over The Sea to conclude, but tenth track ‘(Untitled)’ strikes up the hurdy-gurdies and organs and balloons off into the stratosphere for a magnificent ending. Even then, that’s not it, as ‘Two-Headed Boy, pt.2’ then revisits the love/connection themes of its predecessor but in a lighter and less morbid fashion. “Brother, see we are one in the same / …Don’t you take this away, I’m still wanting my face on your cheek”, one of the boy’s two heads says to the other in Mangum’s lyrics, providing an appropriately vague full-stop for such a cryptic record.

Suffice to say, critics and fans alike were immediately struck by In The Aeroplane Over The Sea – what did this bewildering, fevered imagery, that seemed random but unmistakably had some kind of complex order to it underneath it all, actually mean? Following its release and on the subsequent short tour, Mangum grew increasingly frustrated at consistently having to field questions about the true meaning of his creation, remaining elusive as to what really lies behind tracks like ‘Two-Headed Boy’ and ‘Oh Comely’. In 1999, he announced that Neutral Milk Hotel was going on hiatus – a state of affairs that remained the same until the spring 2013, when a series of reunion gigs was announced that lasted until the start of 2015.

LEGACY

Although Neutral Milk Hotel have been creatively inactive for two decades, the mystery factor connected with their final album, coupled with the rise of internet discussion boards and the resulting propensity for mythology to get given greater weight than fact, has meant that In The Aeroplane Over The Sea has become one of the most romanticised and passionately debated albums of all time. Its admirers have always been extremely vocal in their praise, and its detractors are usually equally outspoken in their displeasure. Then again, this division and debate is the power that great art has – indeed, maybe this is the true function that all art has at its core but, almost always, cannot project.

It has only ever sold modestly, currently at around 150,000 copies sold in their native America and just over 300,000 around the world, but it has done so consistently for a long time with subsequent generations drawn to Mangum’s hermetically sealed little universe – reflected in the statistic that, upon its tenth anniversary in 2008, In The Aeroplane Over The Sea was the sixth biggest-selling vinyl album of the year. Five years ago, around the time of Neutral Milk Hotel’s reunion, the album seemed to be more visible than ever before, with its cult following and cultural impact being discussed not just on tiny indie blogs, but also on major news outlets.

Jeff Mangum himself has become a kind of J.D. Salinger figure in indie rock. Having finished his masterpiece, he has receded almost entirely from view, not recording a solitary note in the subsequent 20 years. An EP titled Ferris Wheel On Fire appeared in 2011, but it consisted of NMH songs written between 1992 and 1995. It’s an absence that seems to be symbolically presaged in the very closing moments of ‘Two-Headed Boy pt.2’, in which you hear Mangum place his acoustic guitar on the floor, stand up and walk out of the studio.

Two decades later, and with its critical stock as high as ever, In The Aeroplane Over The Sea still retains its unique power and mystery, impacting the first-time listener with the same sense of quiet awe and perplexed curiosity. While we hope that its creator at some stage feels confident enough to follow it up, at the same time we should perhaps hope that Jeff Mangum never tells us what his masterpiece is really all about.

Listen to In The Aeroplane Over The Sea by Neutral Milk Hotel here via Spotify – where do you stand on this iconic album?

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