You might get called something along the lines of dramatic, to say the least, if you refer to an album as “life-changing,” or “mind-blowing,” – but there’s really no other way to describe an album like In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. With it’s absurd, psychedelic folk compositions, low fidelity buzz, and frontman Jeff Mangum’s disturbingly poignant lyricism, this album manages to compel like few others can. If you haven’t heard it, turn away now, and go give it a listen – it’s not worth spoiling something as delicate as this. But if you have (or if you just came back from listening to it just then), then you can likely empathise with the sentiment of what makes this album so incredible.
Despite the folk veneer, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is relentless, rarely releasing audiences for any sort of tranquil moment, interludes included. The mastermind behind Neutral Milk Hotel, Jeff Mangum, seems driven by a desire to bridge the gap between the traditions of contemporary singer-songwriter driven indie rock, and the eclectic freak folk of times gone by, resulting in an album that sounds truly timeless, distinct from either era. It’s this willingness to subvert folk format that really pays off here – amidst the band’s low fidelity frenzy of sound, Mangum and company delve into garage rock, circus music, and even folksy punk tunes here and there. In writing, it’s hard to believe, but every element of these eleven tracks works in perfect harmony, feeling more like a tight musical palette than the messy ensemble of sound that it really is.
The King of Carrot Flowers, Pt. One is little more than a façade for this album’s true colours, and at the same time, not – this bittersweet song of childhood love and family breakdown certainly captures the double-edged nature of Mangum’s conceptual basis, but does little to prepare audiences for the total musical breakdown that the rest of this tracklist entails. Pts. Two and Three hit audiences first with a haunting folk refrain of “I loooove you, Jesus Christ,” and then follow up with a left hook of grinding, buzzing, and flailing garage rock, the illogically perfect conclusion to such a perfect trio of openers. From then on, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea divides its time between these vastly varied realms of sound, and with the organic, almost free jazz-esque nature of Mangum’s collective, feels simultaneously adept and all over the place.
It’s more than Mangum’s knack for convincing songwriting that stands out, but the instruments that come into play here. The depressive fairground brass of The Fool; the distorted fuzz bass of The King of Carrot Flowers, Pts. Two and Three; the eerie singing saw that wanders the stage on the title track; Neutral Milk Hotel’s choice of instrumentation is pivotal to the uneasy mood that this album strives to cultivate. Holland, 1945’s maelstrom of noise pop sees garage punk and folksy Latin jazz collide for the album’s catchiest cut, while stripped down acoustic ballads like Communist Daughter and eight minute centrepiece Oh Comely find lamenting solace in their minimal, brooding atmospheres. Overblown collage serves to contrast the more intimate moments – yet it’s never disorienting or directionless, but consistently enthralling.
Not only is Neutral Milk Hotel driven by this pastiche of Eastern European folk and neo-psychedelia, but this album consumes itself with themes of mortality, romance, beauty, and faith, all revolving around a musical appropriation of the story of Anne Frank – and her diary, of which Mangum had read (and evidently been greatly affected by) prior to the album’s inception. Mangum, somehow, and somewhat unnervingly, turns his fascination with Anne Frank into anthemic folk, transforming songs that are already startlingly human into even more complex and multifaceted explorations of life. On cuts like Communist Daughter or Two-Headed Boy (or honestly, most tracks here), Mangum’s lyrics may be absurd, out of this world, or at points, totally nonsensical, but never is he anything less than wholehearted and captivating.
In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is one of those unforgettable albums – you really have to be trying hard for nothing on this record to resonate with you once the final track has elapsed and the curtains have closed. This record is both ethereal, but at the same time, confronting, every lyric and every line seemingly confessing some deep secret unto listeners. For all its absurdity, Neutral Milk Hotel’s second (and final) record shines as one of the most genuine reflections on life, love, and death, enamoured with bittersweet lamentations but always hoping for something better. There’s no other work of music that can say they’ve replicated the delicate musical portraits that Mangum and company have put together – In the Aeroplane Over the Sea stands on its own, one of music’s most unique and unflinchingly inventive works.