Neutral Milk Hotel
Neutral Milk Hotel - In The Aeroplane Over The Sea
The reissue of Neutral Milk Hotel’s cult classic offers another opportunity to measure its reach and influence. Jeff Mangum’s masterpiece mixes hushed folk, explosive brass, and unforgettable vocals that touch on pain, loss, memory, and hope.
So, then, seven years later Domino reissues In the Aeroplane Over the Sea and the arguments can begin anew. I've talked about this album with a lot of people, including Pitchfork readers and music writers, and while it is loved in the indie world like few others, a small but still significant number despise it. Aeroplane doesn't have the near-consensus of top-shelf 90s rock artifacts like, say, Loveless, OK Computer, or Slanted and Enchanted. These records are varied, of course, different in many ways. But in one key respect Aeroplane stands apart: This album is not cool.
Shortly after the release of In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, Puncture magazine had a cover story on Neutral Milk Hotel. In it Mangum told of the influence on the record of Anne Frank's The Diary of a Young Girl. He explained that shortly after releasing On Avery Islandhe read the book for the first time, and found himself completely overwhelmed with sadness and grief. Back in 1998 this admission made my jaw drop. What the hell? A guy in a rock band saying he was emotionally devastated by a book everyone else in America read for a middle-school assignment? I felt embarrassed for him at first, but then, the more I thought about it and the more I heard the record, I was awed. Mangum's honesty on this point, translated directly to his music, turned out to be a source of great power.
In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is a personal album but not in the way you expect. It's not biography. It's a record of images, associations, and threads; no single word describes it so well as the beautiful and overused "kaleidoscope." It has the cracked logic of a dream, beginning with "King of Carrot Flowers Part 1". The easiest song on the record to like on first listen, it quietly introduces the listener to the to the album's world, Mangum singing in a muted voice closer to where he left off with the more restrained On Avery Island (through most of Aeroplane he sounds like he's running out of time and struggling to get everything said). The first four words are so important: "When you were young..." Like every perceptive artist trafficking in memory, Mangum knows dark surrealism to be the language of childhood. At a certain age the leap from kitchen utensils jammed into dad's shoulder to feet encircled by holy rattlesnakes is nothing. A cock of the head; a squint, maybe.