"Soft Silly Music is Meaningful, Magical"
Neutral Milk Hotel's In the Aeroplane over the Sea is the epitome of a grower record. Overtime, In the Aeroplane over the Sea grows from a sordid collection of darted highlights into a symphonic collage of distorted, neo-psychadelic folk gems. I've heard alot of people say that In the Aeroplane Over the Sea just doesn't "do it" for them. They like "King of Carrot Flowers Pt. 1" and can sing every beautifully aching word of "Two Headed Boy" but complain that the record is neither consistent nor "genius" enough to live up to the nostalgic hype it's garnered in the 9 years since its original release. I will contend this opinion for as long as I live.
While seemingly difficult at first, In the Aeroplane... becomes increasingly more personable with repeated listens. This familiarity helps make the fuzziest tape loops and brashest drum fills seem like dancing Care Bear accents designed to transform plaintive folk songs into heart-breakingly optimistic, orchestral collages. Jeff Magnum, who started recording under the name Neutral Milk Hotel as a teenager, conceptually based In the Aeroplane... on a series of recurring dreams he had about a Jewish family living in the midst of World War II, using The Diary of Ann Frank as allegory for the innate beauty ingrained in both life and death. The title track features a simple acoustic guitar rhythm behind wallowing funeral horns, an operatic singing saw and Magnum's fragile voice belting a lyrically surrealistic vision of a utopian life & death ("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 that we see"). If that doesn't hit ya in the heart, than you'd probably be better off buying a condo in Boca and taking up Mahjong.
One of the most mesmerizing and, ultimately, signature aspects of the Neutral Milk Hotel sound was their remarkable use of instrumentation, both unique and plentiful. In the Aeroplane... contains each of the following instruments: guitar, vocals, organ, floortom, bowed fuzz bass, tapes, shortwave radio, drums, trombone, flugelhorn, trumpet, euphonium, Wandering Genie, singing saw, banjo, accordion, white noise, home organ, air organ, fuzz bass, one-note piano, zanzithiphone, saxophone and Ulleann Pipes.
Ulleann Pipes? Zanzithiphone?! Wandering Genie??!!
In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is a complex concerto of literary bedroom pop, which ultimately leaves the listener thinking one thing: Are life and death equally beautiful in their own right? Is it life, or the release from the cycle that we are searching for? A white kid from Ruston, Louisiana's impressions on the Hindu concept of Samsara? Possibly. No doubt Jeff poses these questions throughout the record, on "Oh, Comely" and "Ghost" and especially the closer, "Two Headed Boy Pt. 2", where Magnum sings "And when we break we will wait for our miracle/ God is a place where some holy spectacle lies/And when we break we will wait for our miracle/God is a place you will wait for the rest of your life". Whoa. Well, who knows if he's right, but I'll listen to Mr. Magnum ruminate on the subject, over blarring flugelhorns and hypnotizing singing saws, any day.
If you'd like to delve into the immense history surrounding this seminal recording, pick up a copy of Kim Cooper's phenomenal book, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, part of Continuum's re-dick-u-los "33 1/3" series. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED for long-time fans and newbs, it contains first hand interviews with members of NMH, Robert Schneider (of Apples in Stereo, producer of Aeroplane) and many others who were hanging around the band during those enlightened, often unsettling months in '96/'97. One classick story recounts a day Jeff and Jeremy spent in San Francisco at a vintage penny arcade warehouse/graveyard and saw a girl who looked identical to Ann Frank. Creepy. The book is also completist's look inside the Ruston-Athens-Denver posse that formed the Elephant 6 Collective and proceeded to make mid-ninties indie rock all the more wunderstruck. I could've spent the rest of the summer writing this post and delving into the history of the Elephant 6 crew, but instead I'll leave you with a few of my favorite tracks and some quality links for more information.
Neutral Milk Hotel- In the Aeroplane Over the Sea
Neutral Milk Hotel- Holland, 1945
Neutral Milk Hotel Official Site
Elephant 6 Collective
MERGE Records NMH Site, Purchase all things NMH
In the Aeroplane Over the Sea Wiki
Neutral Milk Hotel Fan Site
Pitchfork Review of In the Aeroplane... 10.0