Album Analysis | Neutral Milk Hotel - In the Aeroplane Over the Sea
Georgia collective Neutral Milk Hotel's 1998 cult classic blends straightforward lo-fi folk songs with lyrical surrealism, textural experimentation, and a wealth of uninhibited emotion.
Largely ignored after its release in 1998 (and among the general public to this day), Neutral Milk Hotel's In the Aeroplane Over the Sea has since become a “cult” album among a specific community of music fans, particularly those prone to discussing music on online boards such as 4chan and Reddit. There are very few other albums that are so simultaneously obscure and specialist in most quarters, and ubiquitous to the point of becoming somewhat of a meme in others. Because of this, it is difficult to remove from its cultural context and legacy and to talk about the music itself.
In the Aeroplane Over the Sea was recorded by Georgia indie rock act Neutral Milk Hotel at Pet Sounds Studio in Denver, Colorado, with the help of producer Robert Schneider. Neutral Milk Hotel is more of a collective than a band; the project is led by singer and guitarist Jeff Mangum and made up of a variety of other musicians (such as Julian Koster and Scott Spillane) who appear on different songs sporadically. Because of this, Aeroplane… seems to be made up of two distinct components: Mangum himself (contributing strummed guitar and creaking vocals), and a conglomeration of textures made by diverse instruments such as accordion, singing saw, bagpipes, and a variety of brass instruments. The band’s previous (and debut) album, On Avery Island, demonstrated the key elements of their style: simple chord progressions, regular use of a fuzz pedal, occasional instrumental tracks, and Mangum’s shouty and marvelously flawed voice, all produced with the rough edges left in.
Neutral Milk Hotel’s particular combination of lo-fi folk, experimental leanings, and psychedelic elements makes for a lovable and eccentric mix. The band doesn’t sound “psychedelic” in the traditional sense of the term; they don’t make heavy use of phaser or reverb effects, and they certainly don’t “jam”, but they do experiment with song structure and texture. Aeroplane's abstract and distinctly recognizable artwork - derived from the vintage postcard (altered by artist Chris Bilheimer) on the front cover to the old-fashioned Americana aesthetic of Brian Dewan's illustrations for the back cover and poster insert - is a fantastic visual representation of the album's sound and themes.
Aeroplane… kicks off with two tracks, “The King of Carrot Flowers, Pt. One” and “The King of Carrot Flowers, Pts. Two and Three”, that can best be described as one song with three parts, as the titles suggest. A simple major chord progression is strummed away, before Mangum’s vocals come in with a darkly surreal tale of a dysfunctional family - “your mom would drink until she was no longer speaking, and dad would dream of all the different ways to die, each one a little more than he could dare to try” - and the contrast between this story and the narrator’s romance with the mysterious titular character adds to the album's complexity. When the accordion enters, the song blooms into life and evokes a particular sense of nostalgia and longing reflected in the lyrics, where the narrator recalls both happy and traumatic memories of his youth. Mangum’s lyrics on this album are strange and often undecipherable; the general theme of the songs are often apparent, but certain lines and words hint at something unusual or contradictory. Is the family that of the narrator or of the title character? Are they siblings, or step-siblings, or friends? These subtly ambiguous lyrical touches make each song a little unsettling, however upbeat and melodic the music sounds.
When a banjo picks out a quiet pattern and Mangum blares out “I love you Jesus Christ”, any expectations of this being a straightforward or generic listen are shattered. It’s one of the strangest moments on an already-strange album that comes right before the pure, gleeful adrenaline rush of the song's finale, where horns give way to thumping, fuzzed-out chords and Mangum spitting out what seems like a stream-of-consciousness array of lyrics. This section is fantastically unhinged, and ends with a single stab of a piano key. "The King of Carrot Flowers" sums up the eccentricities and unexpected turns that will be encountered throughout the rest of the album.
The title track is possibly the most sonically conventional cut, built around one of the most common chord sequences around, but the lyrics read like a grand philosophical experience. When Mangum sings, “and one day we will die and our ashes will fly from the aeroplane over the sea, but for now we are young, let us lay in the sun and count every beautiful thing we can see”, he sounds truly amazed and humbled by his surroundings, as a singing saw whizzes like an alien spacecraft around the song.
“Two-Headed Boy” is comprised entirely of Magnum's vocals and guitar work and features a slightly unusual chord sequence and odd, but not entirely atypical, lyrics. Mangum shouts more than he sings, sounding like a man who is both deranged and determined to pour his soul into his performance. Continuing the album's intensity comes an instrumental, “The Fool”, which sounds like both a sombre funeral march and a terrifying, unhinged carnival, and is reminiscent of some of Tom Waits' work on albums such as Swordfishtrombones and Rain Dogs.
“Holland, 1945”'s simple chord sequence and urgent, thrashing, fuzz-drenched guitars sound almost like punk. It’s an aural assault that combines dark lyrics with a joyfully catchy tune in the tradition of the most disturbed of nursery rhymes. Mangum sings, in one long unbroken sentence, of a girl “buried alive one evening, 1945, with just her sister at her side and only weeks before the guns all came and rained on everyone, now she’s a little boy in Spain playing pianos filled with flames on empty rings around the sun, all sing to say my dream has come”, exhausting himself while he barely pauses for breath along the way.
Aeroplane… was apparently inspired by Mangum’s recurring dreams about a family in the Second World War, likely inspired by his reading of the diary of Anne Frank. Every lyric on this album is ambiguous and open to interpretation (Mangum’s highly reclusive nature means that his true intentions are unclear), but "Holland, 1945" appears to be a song about children’s innocence destroyed by war. Throughout the entire album, there's no clarity that indicates whether Mangum is singing from his own perspective or somebody else’ - it has been suggested that he tells stories from the perspective of a friend of Anne Frank's.
The narrator’s belief that Frank was reborn as "a little boy in Spain" seems to be a coping mechanism, a way of coming to terms with and giving meaning to such a tragic and pointless event as the murder of a child. The references to “rings” and “circus wheels” seem to refer to reincarnation and a cyclical existence. The line, “the earth looks better from a star”, is also particularly thought-provoking; to an alien watching from space, the earth may seem a wonderful place, but to visit it and learn about human history would likely result in a different opinion. "Holland, 1945" ends with a poignant final reflection on the war dead - “Oh, it’s so sad to see the world agree that they’d rather see their faces filled with flies, all when I’d want to keep white roses in their eyes" - set to a triumphant brass section that fits the epic lyrical scope.
In case it weren't already clear: Aeroplane... isn't everyone's cup of tea. If the extremely lo-fi nature of the recordings isn't enough to turn you off, the frequent discordance of Mangum's voice would make a vocal coach tear their hair out, and the lyrical fascinations with sex, death, and surrealism would make your grandmother cry. It's not just casual music fans who have a distaste. Many aficionados of more leftfield genres such as prog rock and experimental jazz dismiss it as too musically simplistic and bereft of technical chops compared to the King Crimsons and Charles Minguses of music history. This is a fundamental philosophical difference between the album's fans and its detractors: Aeroplane... stimulates the right brain over the left, emphasizing ambiguity over answers, and is meant to evoke rather than explain. It's raw, almost childlike, and entirely unfiltered by any and all expectations.
“Communist Daughter” is an ethereal soundscape juxtaposed with a restrained, repeating three-chord guitar pattern that's far more melancholy than the previous track. Again, the lyrics are strange and difficult to decipher (“semen stains the mountaintops”), and the song ends a little too early, but has a fantastic trumpet melody. The musically sparse ballad “Oh Comely” is by far the longest and bleakest cut on the album. Like the previous tracks, the lyrics are once again dark and impenetrable, but this time the music matches the downbeat storytelling. Mangum’s performance is particularly impressive here; all eight minutes of the song were played and sung in one take, and at the end you can faintly hear somebody who was blown away by the performance shout “holy shit!”, which is a nice touch.
In contrast, “Ghost” is one of the album’s most accessible songs. The insistent, slightly off-kilter rhythm and ascending melody of the vocals, alongside the general sense of rising intensity, give a huge dose of energy after its more mournful predecessor. When Mangum sings, “and now she knows she’ll never be afraid”, the softer melody gives way to a powerful yell, making for one of the most electrifying moments on the album. The main melodic motif of the vocals is echoed in the explosive outro with bagpipes and theremin. “Untitled” is another instrumental track, which seems the natural progression from “Ghost”. It starts with a distorted electric organ sound which cheerfully stabs away like a demented fairground carousel, before the bagpipes burst in again with a melodic yet slightly dissonant wail which soars above a sea of gloriously chaotic noise. Before the end, a vocal harmony enters for the psychedelic and anthemic musical climax of the album.
The final song “Two-Headed Boy, Pt. Two” begins with the remnants of the last song’s noise, a brief, ethereal drone which then gives way to a simple, strummed ballad. Although it keeps to the album's aversion to any clear narrative, there are devastating phrases that slip through the confusion. When Mangum sings, “In my dreams you’re alive and you’re crying, as your mouth moves in mine soft and sweet / rings of flowers in your eyes and I’ll love you for the rest of your life”, it is utterly heartwrenching. Here, and at other points on the album, he begins a line softly and melodically, and as the melody ascends turns his voice into a shout. It sounds brilliantly unrestrained, and even when it is unclear what he’s singing about, Mangum always makes it sound like it’s something of such importance that it must be screamed from his lungs. The song ends with a final section using the same chords and melody from the original “Two-Headed Boy”, which gets quieter and quieter until it stops and you can hear Mangum put his guitar down, clear his throat and walk away.
Some of the best albums are structured like stories. The songs have different moods and tones and progress in a way that seems natural, with a climax and a resolution. In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is a perfect example of this, and to listen to it from start to finish is a unique and eye-opening experience. It sounds both epic and intimate, as if Jeff Mangum had sat down to strum you a song on his guitar, and for the next forty minutes taken you on a cinematic journey over strange and fascinating terrain, before putting his guitar down and letting you snap back into the real world.
Listen to In the Aeroplane Over the Sea on Spotify here.