Neutral Milk Hotel – In The Aeroplane Over The Sea
Neutral Milk Hotel’s second and last full length record is one that has been continuously lauded as one of the greatest albums of all time. It is widely considered to be the forefather of the “indie” genre that grew in the early 00s and blossomed towards the end of that decade. Yet it stands apart from other albums of the 90s that have had similar impact (Radiohead’s OK Computer being the obvious one) in the personal nature of the songs and the uniqueness of their composition.
You can’t go very far into any discussion of ITAOTS without mentioning Anne Frank. Lead singer Jeff Mangum openly admitted that shortly after the release of the band’s first LP, On Avery Island, he read the diary of Anne Frank and was emotionally devastated by it. Much of the content on Aeroplane centres around her life, often mentioning her birth and death dates, and Mangum has said live on stage that the song “Holland, 1945” is about her.
Yet despite this dedication the album remains very personal over every track. While Mangum does have a band behind him, playing all sorts of instruments from brass to organs to pipes and saws, some songs leave Mangum all but alone with just an acoustic guitar. The opener, “King of Carrot Flowers pt. 1” has Mangum layering his own voice on itself, singing in harmony with himself, creating a wholesome echo effect. In contrast to Avery’s opener, “Song Against Sex”, Mangum is openly sexual here:
“This is the room one afternoon I knew I could love you/
And from above you how I sank into your soul/
Into that secret place where no one dares to go”
Already having mentioned learning what bodies are for with a heavy tone of incest, Mangum’s lyrics immediately come off as extremely intimate and personal. The song climaxes with Mangum’s lungs bursting as he cries “and Dad would dream of all the different ways to die/ each one a little more than he could dare to try” and the simple guitar chords fade, leaving the accordion that supported the song to blend into the organs that begin part 2. As an opener, Pt.1 serves perfectly – at just 2 minutes long it hooks the listener in and begins to tell the album’s wonderful story.
After Pt.1 you might be deceived into thinking that Neutral Milk Hotel are an acoustic band. After the now somewhat infamous “I love you Jesus Christ” (no, they’re not a Christian rock band either) lines in the beginning to Pt.2 this is smashed down as the song erupts into a cacophony of sound, thundering drums and a huge variety of instruments. In fact, just to lay it out bare, here are all the musicians and what they contributed to the album:
• Jeff Mangum – guitar, vocals, organ, floor tom, bass guitar, tape, shortwave radio, art direction
• Jeremy Barnes – drums, organ
• Julian Koster – Wandering Genie organ, singing saw, bowed banjo, accordion, white noise
• Scott Spillane – trumpet, trombone, flugelhorn, euphonium, horn arrangements
• Robert Schneider – home organ, air organ, bass, backing vocals, piano, horn arrangements
• Laura Carter – zanzithophone
• Rick Benejamin – trombone
• Marisa Bissinger – saxophone, flugelhorn
• James Guyatt – percussion
• Michelle Anderson – Uilleann pipes
Only Mangum, Barnes, Koster and Spillane are considered to be part of the band, however.
That aside, “King of Carrot Flowers Pts 2 and 3” draw on Pt 1’s quiet introduction and throw the listener head long into the record’s surrealism, and Mangum offers perhaps his own voice as to the nature of the lyrics throughout:
“We go the weight it sits on down and I don't know/
I will shout until they know what I mean/
I mean the marriage of a dead dog sing/
And a synthetic flying machine/”
The noise fades away and we return to the acoustic side again as Jeff and his guitar take over for two songs. The titular track, an incredibly simple take on the traditional four chord song (listen to The Penguins’ “Earth Angel” and you’ll hear the exact same chord progression, it has been used many times) is a beautiful love song that, like “King of Carrot Flowers Pt 1” is very accessible to most listeners, but is otherwise unremarkable aside from a doleful brass solo, though that doesn’t stop it from being a superb song. The guitar thrums the song along and Mangum’s lyrics are as powerful and emotive as ever however, speaking to our childhood:
“And one day we will die/
And our ashes will fly/
From the aeroplane over the sea/
But for now we are young/
Let us lay in the sun/
And count every beautiful thing we can see”
As personal yet relatable as ever. How many of us have lain down with our sweethearts and never wanted to get old? If anything the more simplistic lyrics of Mangum’s are a tad cliché. Yet then he throws us back into surrealism with the almost entirely solo “Two Headed Boy”, where he talks about himself and, yes, his penis (the other ‘head’). The awkwardness of sexual experience, the intimacy:
“And in the dark we will take off our clothes/
And they'll be placing fingers through the notches in your spine/"
An insight into Mangum’s (or the speaker’s) childhood, and another relatable one. “Two Headed Boy” is an impressive song to perform – while the guitar is simple, it is played very fast, and Mangum’s immense lung capacity is apparent as he strains and hurls words out almost beyond his own ability, sometimes struggling to hit notes and sustain – symbolic, perhaps, of the inability to find feet as a child/teenager, the natural awkwardness of puberty, and first sexual experiences.
The album takes a break here, entering the first of two pure instrumentals, “The Fool”. Often performed following “Two Headed Boy” live, we are to perhaps assume that the title refers to Mangum himself. The song has a marching nature to it, a sense of epic determination, resolution, and sadness. The skill of the musicians to create powerful imagery of almost despair without the need for words is a testament to their ability, and “The Fool” slots perfectly before the best track on the album.
This is “Holland 1945”, dedicated song to Anne Frank, storming major key guitars, clattering drums and all the tools needed for a perfect fuzz pop song. Here Mangum’s lyrics are among the best not only he’s written but ever written, every quartet practically heaved out of his chest, all perfect, all wreathed with emotion until the final lines:
“Oh 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 her eyes/”
If anything can be considered a truly perfect song, “Holland 1945” comes close. From start to finish it is flawless – the instrumentation, the structure, the lyrics, rhythm, metre, every little technicality is executed perfectly, and the message, a desperate clamour of love, rings both in Mangum’s intentions and to whatever we can apply it to. The lines can speak of African starvation, of the Holocaust, of the depths of human evil.
An upbeat song with a sombre message turns into another brief interlude, the 2 minute long “Communist Daughter”, a moving tribute once again to young love, to seeing sex in everything (“semen stains the mountaintops”) and again, we assume, to Anne Frank. Mangum’s ability as a singer is proven once again, as he sings a huge part of the song in one breath – singing along to this album is a near impossibility without tremendous lung capacity. Not that technical ability should have an impact on how “good” a song is, but it is an impressive fact nonetheless.
“Communist Daughter” leads into the focal point of the album, the 8 and a half minute epic “Oh Comely”. Here we find Mangum’s personal lyrics combined with his surrealism and he laments over his love for, yes, Anne Frank, despairing, wishing that he could have saved her from her terrible, terrible fate. The opening sections of the song are relatively unremarkable save for the looping changes in pitch of Mangum’s voice, but as the song enters a much faster lyrical coda we see his song writing at its finest:
“Your father made fetuses with flesh licking ladies/
While you and your mother were asleep in the trailer park/
Thunderous sparks from the dark of the stadiums/
The music and medicine you needed for comforting/”
The continuing use of alliteration, consonance, para-rhyme and assonance really highlighting his ability as a writer, not excessive or pretentious, but applied subtly and well. Indeed, as we reach the raspy, tearful end to the song, the guitar trembling as if the strings were those on Mangum’s own heart, he echoes a technique used by John Milton in Paradise Lost, hinting at the garden of Eden, at Lucifer the snake, and using sibilance to echo the hisses:
“Goldaline, my dear/
We will fold and freeze together/
Far away from here/
There is sun and spring and green forever/
But now we move to feel for ourselves inside some stranger's stomach/
Place your body here/
Let your skin begin to blend itself with mine/”
Goldaline – a tribute to a former lover, lovers past, lovers that he never got to love.
With “Oh Comely” at an end the band return (Mangum is all but alone with his guitar throughout it) with “Ghost”, which serves as another brilliant fuzz pop song, hurling two and a half minutes of rapid lyrics that are again most likely about Anne Frank at us. It continues to grow, turning up in pitch, dropping down again but adding another instrumental layer, with two brassy interludes slipped in, before reaching a crescendo of instrumentation that pummels us, the same raw emotion Mangum showed through his voice at the end of “Oh Comely” but this time with pure music, almost threatening to explode from our speakers.
This continues into “Untitled” (though it was later renamed to “The Penny Arcade In California”), the second pure instrumentation, just over two minutes of thumping drums, bagpipes and all manner of instruments that I lack the technical knowledge to identify from the list posted above. It reaches a climax that repeats over and over, almost unbearably, until finally coming to a single, shuddering note that holds and eventually waivers away.
A good note to end on, but Mangum takes us on one more trip down memory lane alone bar his guitar and some haunting pipes, with one of the most peaceful and beautiful songs on the album, “Two Headed Boy Pt. 2”. Here Mangum sings right from his own life again, covering his father’s attempted suicide, and the feeling of departure felt by growing up. His lyrics are again at their best:
“In my dreams you’re alive and you’re crying/
As your mouth moves in mine soft and sweet/
Rings of flowers round your eyes and I’ll love you/
For the rest of your life (when you're ready)/”
And as everything fades away and he finally gets up to leave, the physical sound of his standing up and walking away bringing the record to a perfectly silent, sombre close.
I have written this review as if we, the listener, has embarked on a journey across this record, and really that is what we have done. From our gentle introduction to the thundering fuzz pop, the mournful ballads and the solo efforts, the continuous guitars and powerful instrumentals, Aeroplane is an album so complete it is difficult to find fault with it. Everything between the gentle memories of “King of Carrot Flowers Pt.1” to the final thoughts of “Two Headed Boy Pt.2” is immaculately crafted, generating practically every emotion and aesthetic reaction possible in a listener (within reason). Its influence is undeniable, and as is so often the case, the inspiration is the true masterpiece.
King of Carrot Flowers, Pt.1 – 95%
King of Carrot Flowers, Pts. 2 and 3 – 94%
In the Aeroplane Over the Sea – 93%
Two Headed Boy – 94%
The Fool – 92%
Holland, 1945 – 100%
Communist Daughter – 92%
Oh Comely – 96%
Ghost – 97%
Untitled – 95%
Two Headed Boy Pt.2 – 98%
Overall Score – 95.09% - Seminal, Masterpiece
0-10% - Awful
10-20 – Incredibly poor
20-30 – Missable
30-40 – Below average
40-50 – Not great
50-60 – Average
60-70 – Better than average
70-80 – Good
80-85 – Very good
85-90 – Exceptional
90-95 – Must listen
95-100 – Seminal, masterpiece