Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is a blinding white light of brilliance and ingenuity, of death, destruction, and ultimately, rebirth. I have a history with this album, a kind of long one that in the first draft of this blog (which was in fact originally an article for a magazine that never saw the light of day) filled five pages and detailed a month and a half of my life starting at the beginning of June, 2005 with a camping trip I took with a few friends, and ending in the middle of that July on a drunken night alone with an epiphany. But none of that is important. What is important is that this album, these eleven songs, can change your life if you let them.
The first time I heard this record I didn’t like it. It confused me.
Now, I love music. I love music for so many reasons that to even begin to list them would take up more time than either you or I have. It’s life, it’s love, it’s skinned knees and bruised egos and gallons of tears, it’s sunny days and great memories, and the best friends you’ll ever have. In a great song, you can take the human experience and encapsulate it in three minutes without making it sound trivial or trite. That is amazing. That is why I love music so much.
And I’m vain when it comes to music. I know my shit and I’m proud of it, maybe overly so. I can hear something once, and know exactly why it’s good. The inverse is true as well, which is why In the Aeroplane Over the Sea frustrated me.
When I first heard In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, I knew I didn’t like it, which I was okay with. My problem was that I didn’t know why. So of course, I bought the album the next day. I could tell you that looking back on it now, some ethereal force, some invisible “Hand of God” was guiding me towards something bigger than myself. It would sound cool, but it would be a lie. No, I bought the album because, as I said before, when it comes to music, I’m a proud man and there was no way I was going to let this album beat me. To confuse me would be to best me, and I had no intention of allowing that to happen.
But listening to the album changed nothing. Two weeks of obsessive listening left me just as bewildered. I understood it no more than I did the first time I heard it. The bottom line though was I simply wasn't ready for it yet. The fact of the matter is that In the Aeroplane Over the Sea can seem difficult to listen to initially because if you haven’t heard this album, you simply have never heard anything like it.
Let’s attempt for a moment, to imagine you were born and have lived underground your entire life, with no knowledge of anything that exists above the surface. You can’t be expected to know the sky is blue. Hell, maybe you can’t even be expected to know the color Blue. To you, the sky is brown; it’s the dirt above your head. Now imagine that one day, that dirt ceiling collapses and there you are, looking at this huge expanse of blue sky. How would you feel? You might be lucky if you didn’t go crazy from fear or awe. You might think the world was ending. Hearing this record for the first time is a lot like that.
I spent my whole life listening to many different styles and genres of music, but I listened to them all in the same way, with maybe a sensitive, yet all too human ear. A lot of the songs we love are based solely in reality. Love, life, death, happiness, fear…these are the subjects that move us and allow us to relate to the music we love. These subjects might be tackled in unique and exquisite ways; they may be rife with metaphor, but they’re still simply saying things we all say, talking about ways we all feel. Don’t misunderstand, I find these types of songs brilliant. To be able to say something that everyone says, everyone feels, but say it in a way nobody has thought to is a pretty remarkable gift, still, all of these subjects are so immediate and real to us that even if someone says something in words we would have never thought ourselves to use, we instantly know exactly what they mean, almost as though they’re saying those words for us. But In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is different in that those subjects are there, but they’re there all at once and in every single song. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
At the core, the music on In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is reasonably simplistic; rarely more than a four-chord progression played on an acoustic guitar, but it’s erratic. From furious to delicate to frantic to meandering and back to furious again, it cycles around constantly, and it’s completely drowned in a haze of fuzz. On the first couple of listens, it’s easy to get lost. It’s like trying to see what’s in the distance through thick fog. The style and tone from song to song changes so much that by the time you’ve adapted your ears and mind to what you’re hearing, the track ends leaving you in the dust, trying to catch up to whatever new turn that has been taken. Three minutes later, the process repeats itself. It’s relentless and can be, at least at first, frustrating.
Then there are the lyrics. Cryptic and precarious, from song one, the first installment of “The King of Carrot Flowers”, you’re pelted with images of an alcoholic, fork-wielding, mother and a trash collecting, suicide obsessed father, while in the background, two people surrounded by this madness seem to be falling in love. The seemingly disjointed and random phrases don’t stop there. If anything, the images grow more odd and vivid, from declarations of absolute devotion to Jesus Christ, to cremation ashes falling from the sky to rest in the sea for eternity, to a two-headed boy who lives in a jar lost somewhere in a darkened room, tapping on the glass to lead us to him and bring him parts to construct a magic radio for the girl he loves. They seem crazy, and maybe, to at least some degree, they are. However, no matter how much you want them to simply be nonsense, you can’t help but believe there’s some story here. You’re just not exactly sure what it is. And if there is some unifying theme here (and trust me, there is), it’s the face and voice of a young girl named Anne Frank. Singer/songwriter Jeff Mangum reportedly read Anne’s “Diary of a Young Girl”, and was so deeply affected by it that he was driven to write an album for her.
I have my own theories about the lyrics and their meanings, but I won’t go into that here because I think that would be irresponsible of me. This was a personal record for Jeff, and as a result, must become a personal record to everyone deciding to listen to it. If you haven’t already heard it, to pollute your mind with my own ideas would poison your own experience, and thus, would poison the album itself. The lyrics have to be internalized and deciphered by each person, individually.
I’ve been talking so much about words though, and haven’t said a thing about the vehicle through which we hear those words, the voice. It is by no means a traditionally good voice; he’s not going to win American Idol. Still, Jeff Mangum’s perplexing and beautiful delivery softens the blows of all the strange and disturbing images. He sings with passion and reverence, purity and honesty, beauty and love, yet in every song, every line, every word, you can hear confliction and torment. Hope and fear, faith and disbelief, torture and contentment all radiate from that voice. In a song like “Holland, 1945”, which has maybe the most direct references to Anne Frank… “The only girl I’ve ever loved was born with roses in her eyes, But then they buried her alive one day in 1945 with just her sister at her side…” we are instantly bombarded with the horrific images of mass graves at concentration camps but then with almost no warning what so ever, the mood changes and Jeff sings that she’s been reincarnated as a little piano-playing Spanish boy, and although the turn of events is no less strange, we feel better knowing she’s alright. By the end of the song, we’re back to where we began… “…and here is the room where your brothers were born, Indentions in the sheets where they’re bodies once moved but don’t move anymore.”
In three minutes, we’re horrified, given hope, and reminded of how Anne’s story, and many others’ like hers actually ended. With remarkable candor, Jeff Mangum’s voice captures all of this, the twists and turns, the rise and fall, the black and white of the story, and when the song ends, you may feel almost grief stricken but you still can’t help but feel some shred of hope. If not for the ultimate peace that with luck all of those innocent people who died 60 years ago found, then at least for mankind; the fact that maybe, as a whole, through all of our misdeeds and mistakes, we’ve grown enough to never allow anything like that happen again. Of course, you only need to turn on a TV or open the international section of any newspaper to see that things like that are going on all over the world on a daily basis, maybe they’re not as expansive and globally threatening as Hitler’s Nazi Army, but as polarized and geographically contained as they are, they’re there. As strange and maybe contradictory it is though, the compassion of Jeff’s voice lets us know that somehow, it’s all right. He’s telling us to prevent this from ever happening again, but he’s also saying that to internalize the world’s struggles and take them on as our own can only destroy us, and although it’s ok to cry and to bleed for the terrorized and mistreated innocents of the world, it’s also ok to accept things the way they are as long as we continue to hope and to pray that tomorrow will in fact get better. Maybe we can’t always physically save people ourselves, but we can raise our kids to recognize the evils of the world, and, with fingers crossed, every generation will make the world a little kinder, a little gentler, a little more compassionate and aware, all this from a 3 minute and 12 second song. It forces you to rethink our notions of what love, devotion, and faith are, and what they are capable of being. That’s powerful, that’s magic, that’s religious, and it can, if we’re open to it, save us from ourselves.
But really, these are only my thoughts. I left out that detailed story about the camping trip and about my preoccupation with figuring this record out here. I left out the evening, the moment it hit me, and I finally did understand it; I left this out not because I didn’t want to tell my story, but because, really, that part of it isn’t my story. The events that lead up to my relationship with this album are not my In the Aeroplane Over the Sea story. My story is what you’ve just read. My story is how much I’ve fallen in love with this album since it was played for me and then I rediscovered it a month and a half later. My story is the fact that I listen to music differently now than I did before. My story is that this album becomes more special, more important to me every time I listen to it. My story is that now, I need to convince everyone I can to get this album if they don’t already have it and begin to write their own story.
But my story should be no more important to you than my first listen ultimately was to me. What is important is that now, you have an opportunity. You can take my advice and take a risk. You can get this album and allow it the chance to open up new worlds to you. And honestly, that’s why, if you’re not already listening to this, you should be; for the chance at something you’ve never known before, the chance at something bigger than you or I or us, for the chance at something brilliant, bright, eternal. Certainly, I can’t promise you you’ll feel the way I do about this record. It’s not for everyone, regardless of how much I would like to believe so. But for the right person, you can hear everything I do and more, because it’s your story to write, and it can go any way you want it to.
Through all of the creepy carnival funhouse images of death and fear that circulate in the lyrics, through all of the Lo-Fi fuzz that saturates and warms the music on In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, the themes of clarity, love, and hope that are tied up in the lyrics and melodies are the things that really seep through and make the most long-lasting, sincere, and in my opinion, important impressions. Jeff Mangum says in “Oh, Comely”, “I wished I could save her in some sort of time machine”, and with this record, whether he realizes it or not, he has. He saves her every time it’s listened to, every time someone makes the discovery. He saves her every time someone sings along and actually cares about what they’re singing along with, and every time someone falls in love with the record, and as a result, is forced to remember Anne. He saves her every time someone becomes so enamored with the words, the melodies and the madness that they have to tell someone else about it. He built the time machine, it’s called In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, and every time we add another chapter to our stories with it, we save her a little too.