Some albums just hit you the first time you listen to it. This record was one of those for me. Through listening and experiencing the force of this record, I came to understand that not only was this one of the best albums ever, but that something from the little Louisiana town of Ruston could have something that was worth anything at all. I present to you the magnum opus from Neutral Milk Hotel, “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea.”
Even now, very few bands have the electric, buzzy song that these gentlemen perfected. “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea” is still maybe one of five albums in my life that I’ve been able to play back to back and not be bored. The big draw of course, is how Mangum’s anything but normal voice can draw you in, while other members(Julian Koster, Scott Spillane and Jeremy Barnes) keep the off the wall sound blazing behind him.
From the opening notes of “The King of Carrot Flowers Parts 1 & 2,” you can feel the honesty behind Jeff’s voice. In modern music it simply wouldn’t work, but here it portrays a certain eerie, but comforting vibe. Some people can’t get into it, and that’s fine. Certain others though, not only get it, but are drawn to it. It’s easily one of the best, most signature voices I’ve ever heard. It’s been noted several times that the Arcade Fire were influenced greatly by this band, and you can tell by both Mangum’s and Butlers distinct and honest voices. Butler’s voice in some points is very much an homage to that of Mangum's. Arcade Fire even signed to the record label Merge because of their involvement with NMH. That how important Neutral Milk Hotel is to the indie rock scene. One of the current biggest names in music was greatly influenced by them.
By the third song, which happens to be the title track of the record, you’re completely engrossed in what is still a unique sound. What this album does is it manages to deliver us to an unhappy place. That place of course, is the world during the time of World War II, and more importantly to the world of Anne Frank, the little teenage girl who was trying to adjust to a time where she was told she wasn’t needed. In the Aeroplane isn’t really a gentle, loving album. It’s a sad reminder of the evils of man. Mangum has never said it outright, but in interviews and shows he has mentioned the album's core subject, which is why people think this is his letter to a beyond this world Frank, and how he wishes he could save her.
The urge to save her is especially obvious in a song called “Two-Headed Boy.” It’s an immediate song which focuses only on Mangum’s voice and his acoustic guitar. It’s one of the more bittersweet tracks on the record, and it’s near the end where you feel the worst about the events that inspired this album. Many of the songs here evoke a certain sadness that is punctuated by the pain in not only the music, but by the loneliness in Mangum’s voice. We’re then treated to a little something reminiscent of a funeral march, complete with slow drums and haunting, somber horns. As a person lucky enough to see this band perform live, this section truly gives the listener goose bumps.
Following that, the upbeat sounds of “Holland 1945” are presented to us. The upbeat nature only concerns the music though. This is probably the most obvious reference to Anne Frank. He’s desperately trying to free her and save her from the ugly world she was never supposed to witness. This is also probably one of their best known songs besides the title track. It’s my favorite for sure. The music just brings me back to a time that was more simple. It’s a beautiful song, but like much of this band's work, it has a dark undertone that is present if you choose to allow the lyrics and methods of storytelling to stay with you in your heart.
The next highlight of the album comes in the form of the long, but very much necessary “Oh Comely.” The opening vocals of this song are perhaps among my favorite lyrics from any band. This song is just insane, but in a good way. Mangum is able to bring more heart and soul than most full bands could. One of the major influences to this band was the never mentioned enough R.E.M., and you can tell in the way the song are not only structured, but the personal torment Jeff Mangum seems to be giving to these stories. Like I’ve mentioned before, some of the most therapeutic music is often the darkest, and when mentioning this album, it’s easy to see why. The band is giving us a piece of their bodies, and letting us experience things from their point of view. A musician, or artist in general can do no better than opening themselves up and letting the world peek in, even if just for a moment. For me, the most heart wrenching part of not only “Oh Comely,” but the whole album, comes after the hauntingly hum done by Mangum, where he laments about not being able to save her and her family in “Some sort of Time machine.” He goes into great descriptions here discussing bodies buried in a mass grave, next to the people who were tormented in the same way she was, and how fragile life can be.
The last three songs showcase the same somber, fearful emotions of the previous songs. “Ghost” might be the song with the most funk on the album, but it's still an eye-opening, slightly anthemic piece of music. The drums and instant kick in the song are it’s best features, and in it’s in this song where it seems to cement the Anne Frank theory. By writing this album and memorializing her life, she will never die, and people will always be aware of the tragedy that took not only her life, but millions of others. “[Untitled Track]” follows, and while it has no lyrics, it more than makes up in they way it kicks total ass. It might be the dirtiest track on the whole album. From the opening strums, it builds and builds to a confrontation of guitar, drums, and what sounds very much like bagpipes. The horns also make themselves known in the battle for control of sound.
As the album concludes though, we’re treated to the slow burn of the perfectly positioned “ Two-Headed Boy Pt. 2.” The opening always reminds me of a weird Polanski film. I imagine a shot of a over head light spinning under the force of a ceiling fan and the camera going in circular motions blurring the scene. The scene then comes into focus at the same time as Mangum's voice clearly shows up. The track has long held a beautiful, alternative form of a nursery rhyme. Mangum is quietly serenading us as we drift to a wonderful world where everything is as it should be. After all, he even says “In my Dreams You’re Alive.” That pure love and happiness. Lyrically, this is likely the most interesting song. The band is just awesome at imagery, and on this, the last track of the album, they make sure you won’t ever forget it.
This album has been a staple in my life for many years, and each time I step into the suit of the album, it’s spot and placement in my heart grows a little bit more. In retrospect, I’m glad I found it so long after it came out. If it had found me in ’98, I likely would have hated it and would have avoided it forever, but it found me at the right time, and has brought me tons of happiness.
Landon Murray is a music connooisseur who craves sounds of all shapes and textures. He's seen over 2000 bands and looks forward to welcoming you into his world of sound,
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