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20 years later: In the Aeroplane Over the Sea

Sam Mwakasisi, Opinion Editor

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On Feb. 10, 1998, a Louisiana-based indie rock band released an album that thumbed its nose at uniformity, with eclectic instruments and lyrics dedicated to Anne Frank alike. Normally, such a work would never become hailed as one of the greatest of its time. However, this album–Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea–continues to confuse and confound 20 years after its release.

NMH was born in the late 1980s as the brainchild of singer-songwriter Jeff Mangum, with the band usually consisting of Mangum and a random selection of his friends at any given time period. The mid-’90s saw the formation of NMH as a full band alongside the release of a debut album, On Avery Island, that boasted a raw, dirty, lo-fi sound. Their names weren’t truly inked into the history books until the release of Aeroplane–and even then, the respect was hard-earned.

Although critics raved over the album, public opinion was initially lukewarm. These tides gradually shifted over time, and with considerable assistance from the Internet–particularly the /mu/ board of the website 4chan–Aeroplane received a rightful throne among the pantheon of underground music.

Now just what makes this album so worthy of praise?

Aeroplane‘s status as a quintessential indie rock album differs from, say, Arcade Fire’s Funeral. While most indie albums are grounded on Earth, Aeroplane exists in another cosmos. Even the album’s cover art–an edited European postcard centered on a woman with either a potato or a tambourine in lieu of a head–embodies how off-kilter it is. You know that normalcy is out to lunch even before you press play.

The album’s sound is eclectic, drawing from genres such as Eastern European folk and free jazz, and conveying this influence with an outlandish arsenal of tools that presents itself in three categories:

  • Conventional
    • Acoustic guitar, horns (flugelhorn, trombone, euphonium, trumpet), saxophone, accordion, etc.
  • Out-of-the-ordinary
    • Uilleann pipes, zanzithophone, “wandering genie” organ, etc.
  • Straight-up bizarre
    • Shortwave radio transmissions, one-note piano, saw, white noise, etc.

Few bands could muster the audacity to utilize such an armory–and fewer could make it work. I can praise Mangum until the cows come home, but respect must be given to the rest of the band for these wonderful arrangements.

Aeroplane‘s general sound formulates a sliding scale of softness and hardness:

  • Soft – Plaintive acoustic ballads
    • Examples: “Two-Headed Boy” (parts one and two), “Oh Comely”
  • Middle – A happy, cooled-out mingling of softness and roughness.
    • Examples: “The King of Carrot Flowers, Pt. One”, title track, “Communist Daughter”, “The Fool”
  • Hard – Energetic rockouts with heavy punk-esque distortion.
    • Examples: “The King of Carrot Flowers, Pts. Two & Three”, “Holland, 1945”, “Ghost”, “Untitled”

These various sounds manage to form a cohesive blend that oozes with such character that even its instrumentals, “The Fool” and “Ghost”, are laced with intrigue.

Aeroplane is also unparalleled conceptually. The story that the album tells is constructed in such an offbeat manner that, in the words of Pitchfork’s Mike McGonigal, it’s “the [type of concept album] you can listen to without even being aware it’s a concept album.”

Mangum holds writing credits on all 11 tracks (only two weren’t fully written by him), guiding the album in an introspective trajectory with its lyrics. They are formatted and themed abstractly, with mentions of “playing pianos filled with flames”, “green fleshy flowers”, and “[feeding] tomatoes and radio wires” being considerably frequent.

Ample inspiration was taken from Mangum’s reading of the diary of Anne Frank, which left him deeply troubled, leading to Aeroplane occasionally assuming the form of an implicit eulogy for Frank. “I know they buried her body with others, her sister and mother and 500 families,” Mangum sings in “Oh Comely”. “Will she remember me 50 years later? I wished I could save her in some sort of time machine.”

As peculiar as these concepts sound, it’s Mangum’s prowess as a songwriter that can thoroughly suspend a listener’s disbelief, save for several truly bizarre moments. Take, for instance, the second part of “The King of Carrot Flowers”, which revolves around Mangum repeatedly howling “I love you, Jesus Christ!” It’s just as weird as it sounds–and that’s why people love it.

In my opinion, Mangum apexes lyrically in the album’s title track, in which he croons one of the most beautiful musings on humanity’s mortality ever put to wax. “One day, we will die, and our ashes will fly from the aeroplane over the sea,” he sings. “But for now, we are young; let us lay in the sun and count every beautiful thing we can see.”

Furthermore, the song bows out with a profound lyric: “Can’t believe how strange it is to be anything at all.” Essentially, it’s the album’s thesis, and perfectly embodies its central theme: the quirks of our existence.

Not only does Aeroplane fail to lose steam nearing its conclusion, but arguably its finest moment comes packaged in its denouement, within the final moments of the album’s closing track, “Two-Headed Boy, Pt. Two”.

After singing the final line, “Don’t hate her when she gets up to leave”, Mangum promptly does just that. He sets his guitar down and walks away–not just from the album, but from the band.

A year after Aeroplane‘s release, NMH disbanded. The breakup was the culmination of a personal disillusionment that Mangum had with his fame, even going against his bandmates’ wishes to pursue further success. This disillusionment also took the form of an intensifying depression that led to Mangum having a nervous breakdown. In this sense, Aeroplane exists as the fullest realization of Mangum’s artistic intent–and what an intent it is.

Aeroplane is a work of art that embraces such a morbidly gallant individuality that it thoroughly defies proper categorization, much like, say, David Lynch’s Eraserhead. It doesn’t succeed in spite of its weirdness–but rather because of its weirdness. In that sense, there will truly never be another album like this one.

Original album artwork by Jeff Mangum and Chris Bilheimer; featured image by Jeffrey Garcia

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20 years later: In the Aeroplane Over the Sea