Happy 20th Anniversary to Neutral Milk Hotel’s second studio album In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, originally released February 10, 1998.
Concept albums can be over-analyzed, allegorical significance assigned to every word. But despite its consistent motif, It would be a disservice to treat Neutral Milk Hotel’s second studio album In the Aeroplane Over the Sea like a scavenger hunt. Jeff Mangum, the frontman and creative force behind the band, recognized the album as directly influenced by reading The Diary of a Young Girl, by Anne Frank. But for all the linear references to the young heroine, there are equal parts Mangum’s own autobiography, philosophy and observation.
The Diary of a Young Girl is a coming of age story that is cut short, before revelation and maturation. On the album, Mangum grieves the loss of Frank, as well as a collective loss of innocence. She is suspended in her purity, taken away before having the chance to be dulled by adulthood. Mangum uses her youth in proxy, viewing his world through her eyes.
Several times throughout In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, youth is mentioned. The first words of the album, “when you were young,” set the wistful tone. Imagery of freakshow ephemera and slapstick violence is seen throughout the album. In an interview with Puncture Magazine, two months before the February 1998 release of In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, Mangum said, “As I've gotten older, the more I don't understand, the more amazed I am.”
At times the lyrics are pure and awestruck. Then, in sharp contrast, there are bouts of vulgarity—sexual imagery, stripped of love, and strikingly grotesque. Spirituality is another theme, but not in a proselytizing manner. Jesus appears in In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, in the way he occurs in most American literature—as a ghost that haunts everyone, believers and atheists alike.
Lyrically, the album is very singular. It has strong Expressionist vibes, distorting Mangum’s dreams and inviting you into the world of his mind. He admits, that aside from reading The Diary of a Young Girl, he is not someone motivated by much outside influence. In contrast, the music of In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, is largely collaborative. The Elephant Six community of artists make random contributions throughout, creating a populist soundscape.
“King of Carrot Flowers Pt. 1,” begins a surreal tale, lush and vivid. The opening guitar strumming has an earthy, dorm room ease. The echo pedal vocals and accordion make a rich singalong. It melts into the jarring “King of Carrot Flowers Pts. 2 and 3.” “Pt. 2” begins with wailing over hollow banjo pluck. The long cry of “I love you, Jesus Christ,” “Christ” stretched into several syllables, is an iconic moment, Mangum unabashedly engrossed in praise. “Pt. 3” abruptly cuts in, kicking off energetic punk chaos.
The uptempo elements of In the Aeroplane Over the Sea are refreshing. Cacophonous and ragtag, songs like “Holland, 1945” and “Ghost” blast past you with fuzzed out guitars (one of the only indicators that this album was recorded in 1998). Mangum sings quickly, cramming the most words he can into each breath, before tumbling into the next thought.
Instrumentals pop up, smoothly shuttling the listener from one song to the next. “Fool” is a dirge. It serves as a bit of a come down after “Two-Headed Boy.” The New Orleans funeral procession-style offers a moment of contemplation before you are launched into the next song. “[untitled]” lifts you up and takes you on a spin around a folk music Merry-Go-Round, before letting you off at the somber final track. These songs are satisfying little sound bites and it makes you wonder what other two minute clips of brilliance there are lying around the studio floor.
The title track, “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea,” features an instrumental saw and motley horn section. Neutral Milk Hotel’s most popular song, it is an apt representation of their work. Through this folky, communal sound, the thesis is clear: anyone is capable of creating something, any tool can be an instrument. The smattering of sounds feels unrehearsed and impassioned. The strength of Mangum’s Athens, GA music community is where the warmth of the album lies.
The listener is brought to darker corners on songs like “Two-Headed Boy” and “Oh Comely.” The former is raw and creepy, breathlessly diving into a disjointed parable of a boy in a glass jar. The latter is dark and sprawling, jumping from sex and death between verses. As Mangum howls, “know all your enemies” over the hollow thump of a guitar, he’s never sounded more tormented. The lyrics are shocking and sensual, a collection of stray threads collected by Mangum and woven together into a brilliant tapestry of sound.
In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is a simulacra of the circus in Mangum’s mind. The listener takes flight, hovering above the dreamscape he has built below. The wonderment is shrouded in grief, and the death of childhood, creativity, and Anne Frank are mourned throughout. With the final sounds of Mangum closing his guitar case, there is completion; a sigh of relief and reflection. In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is a concept album in its wholeness, a world created and abandoned in less than an hour.