In the Aeroplane Over the Sea
Neutral Milk Hotel
Describing Neutral Milk Hotel sounds like checking off points on a list marked “How to be an Indie Cult Legend.” Incredibly small catalog? Check. Bizarre, cryptic lyrics? Check. Reclusive and eccentric lead singer? Check. Combine all that with the fanatic and often annoying fanbase, and the fact that a lot of Neutral Milk Hotel’s music doesn’t sound like much on the first listen, it’s no surprise the band has just as many detractors as it does fans. But a more patient listen will gradually reveal the genius behind these seemingly basic folk songs.
Neutral Milk Hotel only ever released two albums, 1996’s On Avery Island, and In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, their more or less unquestioned masterpiece. Aeroplane was released in 1998, but it has no similarities to anything released around that time, save the fuzzy, lo-fi guitar that plays in the background of songs like “Ghost.”
The band sounds more in tune with the turn of the century, which is where frontman Jeff Mangum draws much of his inspiration. The basic folk rock set (acoustic guitar, bass, drums, etc.) is combined with elaborate horn arrangements, organs, bagpipes, accordions, and a “singing saw,” which is more or less exactly what it sounds like: a saw that, when a bow is drawn across it, produces music.
This kind of description can make Neutral Milk Hotel seem insufferably dull, like music for craft beer-drinking hipsters or bearded old men, but Mangum fills the music with life, making it feel more “timeless” than “old-timey.” His songs, even when at their most low-key, are filled with energy and emotion. This can, at least partly, be attributed to Mangum’s odd voice. While it is an acquired taste, listeners who can get past his lack of conventional singing talent will be able to appreciate how interesting it is; how he leaps back and forth on the scale of emotional intensity, how his high-pitched warble perfectly accentuates the bizarre instruments behind him.
All this doesn’t even mention the component that, to many, is what truly makes Neutral Milk Hotel great: the lyrics. Mangum creates a virtual world of dense, fantastical imagery that is sometimes disturbing and sometimes fascinating, which flocks of devoted fans love analyzing.
Soon after the album’s release, Mangum explained that before he began work on Aeroplane, he had read Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl, and found himself incredibly moved by it. Much of the album’s imagery, in turn, revolves loosely around Anne Frank and the time period she lived in, as he uses her story to mirror his own broken childhood. That’s only the tip of the iceberg of Mangum’s lyrics, but part of the fun of Aeroplane is diving in yourself and seeing what sense you can make of his descriptions of holy rattlesnakes and two-headed boys.
The album has only one weakness: “Oh Comely,” an 8-minute long ballad that plays more or less unchanging until its last 3 or so minutes, until which it consists of Mangum’s rambling over one of the album’s more uninspired melodies. The fact that it’s the only song on the album of above-average length, and actually takes up a lot of Aeroplane’s 39 minutes, makes it hard to ignore, and is more or less the thing keeping the album from getting a perfect 10/10.
The album is very compact, but in this case, it’s a good thing. There’s absolutely no filler, and even the two instrumental interludes, “The Fool” and “[untitled],” are essential parts of the flow of the album, and great songs on their own. And Aeroplane really does have a perfect flow, from the cheerful opener “The King of Carrot Flowers, Pt. 1” to the blistering “Holland, 1945” (in my opinion, the best song on the album), to the last, melancholy notes of “Two-Headed Boy, Pt. 2.”