In the Aeroplane Over the Sea by Neutral Milk Hotel – 20th Anniversary Retrospective
This WPTS Special Feature includes writing by Thomas Troyan, Ryan Hartman, Dustin Butoryak, and Sam Taylor.
On February 10. 1998 the music world saw the birth of a legend, as Neutral Milk Hotel released their legendary sophomore album “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea.” This album defies classification, description, and indie-rock genre convention, and has done nothing but grow in acclaim and popularity since it’s release 20 years ago. In observance of this occasion, some of WPTS Radio’s finest staffers have written some thoughts on what “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea” means to them.
I’m convinced that Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is a perfect album. I was introduced to it in either ninth or tenth grade with “The King of Carrot Flowers Pt. 2 & 3.” Hearing that simple little picking followed by Mangum’s wail of “I you Jesus Christ” had me convinced that this album must’ve been a joke. But when you sit down and listen to it, all the elements of the album click into place. I think because of its eccentricities, such as those kinds of lyrics, or just because of Jeff Mangum’s nasally voice, it won’t ever get the kind of recognition of other “indie classics” by bands like Radiohead, or Weezer, which is a shame since this album, I feel, is truly flawless.
The album’s notoriety today comes from two places in my mind. First you have those who simply believe that it is an amazing piece of art, and then you have those who get lost in the mythology of the band. After the album released, and Neutral Milk Hotel played a handful of shows, the band went on hiatus for over ten years, with only one song written after the release of this album. Mangum would occasionally contribute vocals to a song here or there, or play a few surprise benefit shows, including an appearance at the Occupy Wall Street movement. While it’s fun to view Mangum as this elusive icon, the music sometimes gets ignored in the presence.
There’s the songs that everyone loves, like “Holland, 1945” or the title track, but I feel the album shines with tracks like “Oh Comely;” an eight-minute epic which was written after Jeff Mangum read and was emotionally affected by The Diary of Anne Frank. “Oh Comely” displays some of the strongest lyricism on this album, while also being an impressive feat in just how he’s able to use his lungs throughout. You can even hear a stunned band member utter “holy shit” at the end of the song after Mangum finishes.
The song also has some criminally underrated instrumentals with “The Fool” and the untitled tenth track. But really, every song on this album is fantastic, and I feel like I gain something new with every listen. And it ends on what is quite possibly one of the greatest ending tracks of all time “Two-Headed Boy Pt. 2.” which is just utterly beautiful, and after the song ends, you can hear Jeff Mangum get up to leave, in a moment that will always hit me hard.
At this point, “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea” has such a following that in any kind of music circle it’s impossible to avoid. But I think it’s deserving of it. I’ve never had an album become a part of my life quite like this one, and it’s one I know that I’ll always come back to. Regardless of the mysticism regarding the band, or specifically Jeff Mangum, I think it’s important to acknowledge just how amazing this album actually is.
Although I am now slightly ashamed to admit it, I was once one of those stubborn souls out there that refused to give “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea” a chance. To me, Neutral Milk Hotel was synonymous with the pretentious part of the internet music community, which I had no interest in joining. (Although I must admit the memes were pretty solid.) I soldiered on through life doing my best to avoid that album with that weird waving potato-woman until one Monday morning “Holland, 1945” appeared on my Discover Weekly playlist. I rolled my eyes but hit play regardless. From the playful “2…1, 2, 3, 4!” to the bouncy fuzz and horns that accent the track, I was immediately hooked. I listened again, and probably a couple more times after that. How could any track from that meme album be so good? I shrugged it off as an anomaly, too proud to succumb to the temptation of In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, and switched back to my daily dose of Ty Segall.
Fast-forward to my first semester here at Pitt, and this album proved to be even more inescapable. My radio colleagues raved about it, and certain tracks were even party staples. At that point I decided I had to put my pride aside and see what we were dealing with here. This is the point where I basically admit I was wrong. From the opening three part mini-epic “King of Carrot Flowers” to the blissful fuzz-folk of “Ghost”, this album is about as good as it gets. Every single track, oozes with melody and an undeniable sense of timelessness which goes to explain why this record is still so important and influential a whole 20 years later. “Two-Headed Boy” is a perfect example of this. With only his voice and acoustic guitar, Jeff Magnum crafted what I consider to be one of the most beautiful songs written in my lifetime. (I would also agree if someone called it the Beatles’ Yesterday for twenty-somethings that like craft beer but I digress.)
The greatest question facing any album, movie, etc. that achieves this level of cult-like fervor is always how it came to reach such heights. In the case of “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea,” I can’t really offer any explanation other than that the music is just that great. This album achieves an emotional purity so that is so often sought out, but so seldom recognized. It is this purity that has led two decades of listeners to mosh about carelessly to “Holland, 1945” and grab their friends by the shoulder before belting out “I LOVE YOU JESUS CHRIST” to the dark and gloomy skies of South Oakland. In the Aeroplane Over the Sea’s emotional weight radiates empowerment, independence, and release in a way that no album since has ever quite matched. For that reason, I highly doubt this album is going anywhere.
My first exposure to “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea” was a ripped CD my friend Eamon made me in his parents’ computer room. I was a frustrated, freshman in high school who, due to overwhelmingly protective parenting, clung desperately to any scrap of music I could get my mitts on. At the time my musical tastes centered around top 40 hits and Fall out Boy, and Eamon’s musical taste (ranging from Kurt Vile to Animal Collective to, yes, Neutral Milk Hotel) was a magical gem of independence I could never get enough of. I seemed to leave his house with new, exciting albums to pore through every time I went.
As far as ITAOTS went, Jeff Mangum’s piercing wail whupped my entire ass. I listened to it on repeat everywhere I went, scribbling the lyrics into a notebook and figuring out all of the guitar parts by ear- I have the album memorized inside and out to this day. The next time I met with Eamon, I raved about it. I remember telling him, “It’s just so cool! So simple too, I feel like I could have written all of the songs myself!” Without looking at me, Eamon replied “I definitely couldn’t have written anything on this album.”
Though I don’t quite hold the same view as I did in ninth grade, I don’t think either of us was wrong. What drew me into ITAOTS was its instant accessibility that, after further listens, gives way to a myriad of artistic layers. Jeff Mangum’s painfully succinct and deeply meaningful songwriting taps into the humanity deep inside all of us, while somehow remaining an intimate flame of creative genius for Neutral Milk Hotel personally all under 40 minutes. Appealing to fans of folk, classical, punk, and many other genres, ITAOTS paved the way for many great artists and is, in my mind, an album that will always help drive music in a positive direction.
“In the Aeroplane Over the Sea” ought to be listened to alone, with no judgement. Everyone who I know who enjoys this album has a highly individual connection to the album. I’m no different, this album was introduced to me by an old friend who I’ve not seen or heard from in years, and I’ll never see or hear from her again. When we were about twelve years old, she told me that her favorite song was “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea,” and I listened to it immediately, though it took me until about a year later to listen to the full album about a year later. That’s the lens through which I viewed this album for the first time, and sometimes I still go back to hearing it as an innocent kid in a safe suburb who heard it from a friend who was taking tough times in stride. Normally I wouldn’t go into so much detail about my scope, but this album has a way of burrowing its way into the hearts of fans; I’m talking about this album as I experience it because there is no other way for me to talk about this album.
I initially found “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea” a difficult listen, especially because I was only thirteen. That first listen may have been the first time that I heard any artistic expression address some of these disturbing concepts—abusive family relationships, young sex, real love, death and pleas for an afterlife—in such a raw form. The stories told here are bizarre and extreme, yet they need to be heard.
“In the Aeroplane Over the Sea” is one of the few albums that immersed me enough to keep me from realizing I was listening to music, almost like how if a movie soundtrack is good enough, it’ll simply merge with the movie. Both the compelling stories and subtle musical gems make this album rewarding to listen to, for instance; it took me years to notice the title track was in 6/8 time. There’s so much depth to it all, I feel like I may never stop discovering new layers to this album. Each song unveils something new about the characters’ lives in this album. Abusive parents are explicitly referenced in all parts of “The King of Carrot Flowers” as well as the distant shout at the end of “Oh Comely.” Girls and boys discovering sex are depicted in “Communist Daughter” and “The King of Carrot Flowers Pt. 1,” yet, in the same vein, there’s maturity in joy, hope, and sorrow, addressed in “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea,” and “Oh Comely.” Further down the short timeline is the loss reflected in “Holland, 1945,” “Ghost” and “Two-Headed Boy Pt. 2.” The stories told by Neutral Milk Hotel in “In The Aeroplane Over The Sea” reflect a lifetime rushed forward, every loss of innocence brought on too soon for complete comprehension, yet with enough human introspection and input to demonstrate the weight of all this. What does the loss of loved ones mean? What does the loss of sexual innocence mean? No one knows, but the characters know how they feel, and Neutral Milk Hotel seamlessly makes a bridge connecting the characters to the listeners.
Nothing brings me more satisfaction than the perfect parallel between the awkward desperation of the album’s storytelling and its instrumental sound. The trumpet and trombone are unrefined, and often sound shallow, almost lonely, in their place in the soundscape. But gosh, if they don’t communicate some real emotion! The trumpets turn “The Fool” into a drunken sailor song, the trombone carries some kind of hope beneath the mostly high-pitched instrumentation of the title track. Also a staple of the title track is the saw, which sounds chilling and strange, even supernatural or ghostly, but with genuine beauty all the same. Jeff Magnum’s voice is almost objectively not pretty, but it rings with sincerity. Several instruments only appear intermittently on the album, like a full, bright accordion, a smoothly flowing fiddle, a shrill and urgent set of bagpipes. Every last note and sound is physically pushed through each instrument, onto the listener, reflecting the desperation with which “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea’s” story is told.
I think in some way, fans put their lives in the perspective of this album. Even though the lives described in this album are much harsher than almost every nonfictional life, everyone experiences the love-loss-loneliness and hope-fear-confusion blends that are shown here in some form. No one ever wants to talk about life when it’s weird and disturbing like it sometimes is, but Neutral Milk Hotel’s deliberately and meticulously constructed “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea” carefully puts our troubles in perspective and gives us something to latch onto. Just in case we need it.
This feature was edited by John Wright of the WPTS Editorial Board.