A doctoral thesis could be written on the meaning of Neutral Milk Hotel’s 1998 masterpiece, "In the Aeroplane Over the Sea." It’s a record that welcomes interpretation and analysis. Since its release, fans have been clamoring for some concrete explanation about its often-abstract imagery from leader and musical hermit Jeff Mangum, but none has been forthcoming. And it most likely never will.
The only hint at inspiration (and this by Mangum’s own disclosure) comes from the lyrics pertaining to Anne Frank and her struggles, which were purportedly a large influence on the lyrical nature of the record. This can be heard on tracks like "Holland, 1945" and "Oh, Comely." But even these songs only tangentially reference Frank and are never explicit in their implications. Images are given that suggest a tenuous connection with the young girl but seem altogether too personal for someone on the outside of Mangum’s psyche to understand. However, that doesn’t stop this imagery from being especially powerful and resonant.
If I’m to be completely honest, I do not remember why I bought a copy of "In the Aeroplane Over the Sea" at Best Buy many years ago. I may have been drawn to the antique penny arcade imagery of the cover, or possibly I had read some positive mention in a random music magazine. I certainly had not heard any songs from the record at that point. It’s a source of pride, I guess.
To understand why this record means so much to me, you have to understand that my music inclinations up until then were less than admirable. Granted, by that point, I was listening to some R.E.M., a little Belle & Sebastian and the occasional Radiohead song, but I also had bought Creed’s debut album the previous year. Prior to that, I went through an extensive country jag, where I would listen to US 101 every night—just waiting for the latest Alan Jackson or Tim McGraw song to play. But don’t badmouth Garth Brooks, or we’re going to have a problem.
But this record acted as sort of a musical gateway drug, showing me possibilities that I’d never been presented with on any previous album. The music wasn’t especially complicated or technical, but it felt intensely personal and inclusive at the same time. Mangum was holding nothing back and allowed us a complete view of the things swirling around in his head.
His voice wasn’t particularly strong or broad in its range, but it housed anguish and love and could deliver devastating lines like no other singer I had ever heard. Even when the lyrics were decidedly obtuse and appeared nonsensical (at least to me), there was a force and sense of relatable emotion that saturated each syllable. The album became a series of kaleidoscopic scenes drawn from Mangum’s stream-of-conscious inner monologue—whole worlds were constructed and destroyed in just three minutes. Each song felt self-contained and entirely its own story. But the wonder of "In the Aeroplane Over the Sea" is how each of these stories came together to create something far more than just the sum of its tracks—a fully formed aural nightmare/dreamscape where anything was possible and nothing was off limits.
Mixing acoustic guitars, a galloping brass section and fuzz-drenched rhythms, Mangum curated a collection of songs that spoke to the uncertainty inside all of us while also appearing to take a genuine interest in his audience—though his way of including us was generally by way of his fantastic visual lyricism and earnest sentiment.
At times painfully honest, the album revels in its exposed nerves and the occasional bout of howled, strained vocals. The album develops so unexpectedly that there are moments when you aren’t quite sure where the next song will lead. This happens early with "The King of Carrot Flowers, Pts. Two & Three," where you can practically hear Mangum twisting his vocal chords as he repeatedly yells, "I love you, Jesus Christ" without the least bit of irony or disdain. We’re generally mistrustful of this kind of unadorned sentiment, and our first instinct can be to label it as simple pandering or disingenuous posturing. But here it feels truthful and proudly archaic in its picture of a man reaching out to something that he doesn’t quite understand but that might offer some form of salvation.
But that’s simply my take on the song. You may get a dozen different interpretations from a dozen different people. That’s one of the many reasons why "In the Aeroplane Over the Sea" holds up so well after nearly two decades. You just seem to fall into the music without cause or understanding.
Neutral Milk Hotel fans were understandably ecstatic when news of a tour was announced. Long-assumed to be forever cloistered away in a self-imposed musical exile, Mangum was hitting the road and playing to large crowds. He even stopped by Track 29 back in October to a sold-out audience. And the songs sounded just as relevant and electric that night as they did the first time I heard them.
But really, it’s difficult to condense and adequately explain why this band—and this particular record—has made such a lasting impression on people. I could give you a dozen reasons why you should listen to this album, but the truth is that you just need to let the music and lyrics speak for themselves. Everything else is just a poor imitation.
"In the Aeroplane Over the Sea" is genius—an overwhelming, vibrant, surreal kind of genius. It feels rooted in the unhinged creativity that fueled the minds of artists like Dali and Buñuel and Edgard Varèse. But at no point does Mangum’s music approach a synthetic artifice or an ambiguity for its own sake; it simply exists to be experienced and absorbed, free of all preconceived notions of linear narratives or matter-of-fact lyricism.
It feels almost subversive in its ability to emotionally disarm the listener before showing you exactly why you had those emotional barriers in place. But this album is pure sensation, free of opinion or assumption; its music is a stream of aural nonsequiturs and effervescent lyrical visions. So basically, this is what the inside of Mangum’s head looks like. And I feel privileged that I’ve been given this chance to take a peek.
Joshua Pickard covers local and national music, film and other aspects of pop culture. You can contact him on Facebook, Twitter or by email. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.
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