Neutral Milk Hotel’s seminal release In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is exceedingly topical, with anti-immigration and ethnicity-based rhetoric once again reaching a boiling point across the western world.
Inspired by the diary of Anne Frank, it offers a tour de force of emotive lyrics and melodies that few others can even approach. Though frequently cryptic, virtually every line paints an indelible mark into the psyche of the listener. Written in the first and second persons, it places the listener directly in the scenes conceived by Jeff Mangum, the primary lyricist and composer of Neutral Milk Hotel.
More than anything else, the overall tone of In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is its most obvious feature. Singing saws, bleating bag pipes, trumpet solos and other less common instruments combine with Mangum’s nasal cry to create an appropriately haunting atmosphere. If being trapped in an attic without much hope had a soundtrack, this would be it. Any dreams of salvation are rooted firmly in religious and technological saviours. When only Jesus Christ or a time machine can come to your rescue, you know things are dire.
Yet despite these overtones, the composition of the tracks is clearly drawn from the folk world, skillfully crafted with indie rock and, at some points, even grunge sensibilities. Often featuring down-stroke strumming patterns and muted “chunking” on the guitar, this album is not afraid to get loud. This is first and most viscerally felt on the second track, King of Carrot Flowers Parts 2 & 3, as the drums come suddenly crashing in, amidst a cacophony further punctuated by the lo-fi, fuzzy bass. This unexpected twist juxtaposes fiercely against the sombre, reverent intonations of “I love you, Jesus Christ,” immediately prior. One of Neutral Milk Hotel’s greatest strengths is their ability to move seamlessly between soft, brooding measures to in-your-face assaults and back again without ever losing their anthemic quality.
Afterwards we move into the title track, where Mangum explores both life’s inexorable charms as well as its inherent transitory impermanence. At once romantic and morbid, it projects insight with unmatched poetry. It is easy to forget that he is professing love for someone who is not only deceased, but who died decades before he was born. This can produce confusing and conflicting emotional responses within the uninitiated listener. The lyrics quickly move from something instantly relatable and reminiscent of many love ballads (“What a beautiful face I have found in this place”) to existential (“And one day we will die and our ashes will fly”) to festive (“What a beautiful night we have found here tonight, there is music which sounds from the street”) to incomprehensibly creepy (“Oh, how I remember you, how I would push my fingers through your mouth to make those muscles move”). He does all this without ever losing the flow of his meter, rhyming without being overly “rhymey”, culminating in one of the greatest lines ever: “How strange it is to be anything at all.”
The disturbing, over-the-top imagery continues in Two-Headed Boy. Mangum often invokes machinations that give the impression of some kind of marionette, though even that may be too expository. At times it sounds as though characters are moved by forces beyond themselves (“Two-headed boy, with pulleys and weights”), at others it sounds as though perhaps they’re just dead (“Now your eyes ain’t moving”). Whatever it is that’s going on, it is clearly very intense and intimately vulnerable. The short interlude following, The Fool, does have some trappings of a funeral march with flare.
The album climaxes with Oh Comely, where Mangum is bathed in the spotlight, singing and playing on his own for a full eight minutes. Sprawling and expansive, it is again difficult to interpret what exactly is being conveyed. He is singing about someone, someone who has clearly suffered through a lot. In some sections there appears to be pity, in others disdain, while the chorus is downright accusatory. At the end of the day, people are complex, and perhaps Mangum hasn’t really decided whether or not the protagonist is at fault for their predicament. Finally, at its close, we seem to return to an exploration of rebirth (“And now we move to feel for ourselves inside some stranger’s stomach”).
Regardless of the exact meanings of any given song or lyric, the lines do not feel random, as many other artists often do. Even when indecipherable, the feelings of despair, hope, longing and joy conjured are always apparent and never apathetic. In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is powerful throughout its playlist with no weak points. Nothing goes astray, and the moods and themes of the verses and choruses blend masterfully with the music behind them. It takes you through a surreal adventure closing with “But don’t hate her when she gets up to leave”, at which point the guitar is unceremoniously holstered, and the artist leaves the room.