Twenty Years Later – Neutral Milk Hotel’s In The Aeroplane Over The Sea

by: Michael Shields

Twenty Years after its inception, the cult classic that is Neutral Milk Hotel’s In The Aeroplane Over the Sea still confounds in its pure majesty…

Upon completion of the 1998 indie rock classic In The Aeroplane Over The Sea, and after a brief yet inconsequential tour in support of the album, Neutral Milk Hotel’s (a band composed of Jeff Mangum, Julian Koster, Jeremy Barnes and Scott Spillane) frontman Jeff Mangum stepped briskly away from the spotlight. In the wake of what is now seen by many as not only one of the greatest albums released in the ‘90s, but one of the best albums of all time, Mangum became rock ‘n’ roll’s most prominent recluse. Speculation ran rampant about his whereabouts, and reasons for his unexpected and seemingly premature disappearance were weighed by his most ardent fans. There were rumors of a mental breakdown and fits of paranoia, as well as a great deal of contemplation surrounding Mangum’s distaste for notoriety. Expounding upon the situation in an exclusive interview with Pitchfork in February of 2002, Mangum explained that after the album was released “I felt I needed to take a bit of a harsher look at life, and that’s what I did,” and that “I went through a period, after Aeroplane, when a lot of the basic assumptions I held about reality started crumbling.” Distinctly, as the album grew in its lore, Mangum struggled with some of life’s deeper questions, making it easy to assume that possibly his star shot too high, too fast upon completion of such a unique album. Or maybe he instinctively surmised that In The Aeroplane Over The Sea would be impossible to surmount artistically, and Magnum possibly realized that it was better to just walk off into sunset with the album’s brilliance radiating behind him.

Geniuses are funny that way, and Mangum surely is just that, as exemplified by his contributions to In the Aeroplane Over The Sea. We may never truly come to know what rattled Mangum and suppressed his and the band’s momentum, but what can be positively known is that In The Aeroplane Over The Sea, Neutral Milk Hotel’s second album and first to thoroughly catch the ears of fans and critics forthwith, is as unique a success story you will find in the history of indie rock, and a truly curious work of art. It is an album that was birthed after Mangum became obsessed with Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl. Supposedly, after finishing the book, Mangum cried for days. Magnus explained his fixation, recounting how he “would go to bed every night and have dreams about having a time machine and somehow [he’d] have the ability to move through time and space freely, and save Anne Frank.” As Mangum sings on the titular “In The Aeroplane Over The Sea,” “Anna’s ghost all around / Hear her voice as it’s rolling and ringing through me / Soft and sweet / How the notes all bend and reach above the trees.” Anna’s suffering persists throughout the album, darkening its tone at points, as in “Holland, 1945,” where Magnus sings “But then they buried her alive / One evening, 1945 / With just her sister by her side / Only weeks before the guns / All came and rained on everyone.”

Beyond just conceptually, In The Aeroplane Over the The Sea is a sonic oddity, an album so unorthodox that it’s absolutely astonishing how well it works. Exemplifying its anomalous nature is the bizarre symbolism that makes its home within the album such as the “two headed boy,” a baby with two heads preserved in a jar of formaldehyde, and the peculiar lyricism which rattles about energetically, such as “semen stains the mountaintops (“Communist Daughter”) and lines about eating “tomatoes and radio wires” (“Two-Headed Boy Pt 2”). In The Aeroplane Over The Sea is a complex album that is as thought-provoking and esoteric as it is lively, one with a title track that is awe-inspiring in its tenderness and in its ability to arouse and send chills pulsating through one’s body, as well a plethora of songs that live on in indie rock history as some of the most remarkable ever birthed.

Described aptly as an “unsettling travelogue torn between melancholy and glee” by Spin’s Erik Himmelsbach, In The Aeroplane Over The Sea is entirely raw at times, with moments of blissful serenity as Magnum’s acoustic guitar soars. At other times the album manifests itself as decidedly thundering, as exemplified by the folk punk classics that are “Two Headed Boy” and “Holland,1975.” Brilliantly produced by Robert Schneider (at the now relocated Pet Sounds studios in Denver, Colorado), it is an album whose strange and dizzying brass band instrumentation heightens the emotional experience of digesting the multifaceted piece of art. In the Aeroplane Over The Sea is an album that to this day still sells over 20,000 copies a year, a testament to its importance and the affectivity of its thematics. It can also be credited as having inspire a prolonged list of successful indie rock acts that all owe a debt of gratitude to Neutral Milk Hotel’s colossal achievement.

In 2013, fifteen years after their last performance together, Neutral Milk Hotel reunited for a string of shows, which were followed two years later with a farewell tour where Neutral Milk Hotel played their final shows “for the foreseeable future.” Mangum has popped up from time to time prior to that, releasing a compilation of Bulgarian folk music titled Orange Twin Field Works, Volume One (which he had recorded at the Koprivshtitsa Festival in Bulgaria), and performing solo gigs sporadically, most notably at Zuccotti Park during the Occupy Wall Street protests as well as tours throughout 2012 and 2013 that found him performing at Coachella, Primavera Sound, and the Calgary Folk Music Festival. But all the while Mangum remains distant, and in many ways it is a shame that he retreated from surefire stardom and from contributing more work to his distinguished yet scant catalogue. However, Mangum’s opus will forever entertain, inspire, and persist as the verification of one man’s genius.

In the Aeroplane Over The Sea is an entirely human album, rife with a vulnerability that is wholly relatable. There is an honesty underlining each and every song that is empowering, flat out beautiful and all the while gut-wrenching. It’s an album about love, desire, and loss, and twenty years after its conception it still affects me profoundly upon each listen and will continue to live on in the annals of indie rock as one of the greatest works of art ever spawned. Henceforth, I will invariably refer to being intimate with someone as learning “what each other’s bodies were for,” and I will wistfully ponder until my final breath “how strange it is to be anything at all,” concepts bequeathed to me by Jeff Mangum and Neutral Milk Hotel on their phenomenal album, In The Aeroplane Over The Sea.

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