Neutral Milk Hotel – In The Aeroplane Over The Sea

Of the many albums I like, only a few stand out as exceptional. The following review marks the start of a new series that explores those albums that we love, those that we helplessly return to time and again, and those albums that still sound fresh on the 100th visit. It’s hard to tell someone why you love an album than it is too slag one off. Harder still, and somewhat pointless, is to order your favourite albums from 100-1, which is why this will not be a countdown. No, this will be a simple series of tributes to some amazing records.

In the Aeroplane Over the SeaNeutral Milk Hotel, one of the worst named bands of all time, is also responsible for one of the greatest albums. In The Aeroplane Over The Sea is a lyrical masterpiece. Brutal, bloody, uplifting and devastating, this album explores the holocaust with such freedom, as it soars through outer space, possesses bodies and watches just over Anne Frank’s shoulder as her family and herself die, that it makes you wonder whether the writer’s mind is confined to his body. It is a style akin to Guillermo del Toro’s direction in Pan’s Labyrinth.

It is also, initially, a very hard listen. I stumbled across the album following repeated references in reviews of Arcade Fire’s Funeral on Amazon. I bought it expecting something that would make me well up with tears of joy. I put it in my CD player, lay back on my bed, and I could not believe what I was hearing. Was this the same masterpiece I’d been told about? The singer/songwriter, Jeff Mangum, strains his way through densely packed, incomprehensible lyrics, in a half shouting/half singing manner, and with rasping vocals that are “challenging” to say the least. Then there’s the guitar playing. I once played one of the songs off ITAOTS to a friend on my acoustic guitar, and he literally refused to believe that anyone would set such rudimentary, hacking guitar playing to record. It’s like the man is trying to attack the instrument rather than play it.

But after five or six listens, when I finally managed to work out what Mangum was banging on about, the beauty of his message transformed the grating vocals and unsophisticated guitar playing into something profoundly beautiful. Mangum no longer sounded like a bible-bashing zealot – there’s an infamous moment where he sings “I love you Jesus Christ” at the top of his voice – but a visionary. The instrumentation is familiar, alien, and wildly inventive. The drumming is rhythmically dense and intense, mirroring the explosions from the bombs, “That rain on everyone”. Elsewhere, accordions, horns, and other unidentified sounds make for something as earthly and unearthly as the subject matter. Schneider’s production is miraculous.

It is widely thought that ITAOTS was inspired by Anne Frank’s diary, and much of the album’s subject matter focuses on characters and events from within this book. It’s not just that Mangum tries to bring these characters to life; it’s that he possesses their bodies, living, suffering, dying within them, and then following their afterlives. It is a journey that is expressed with such passion and eloquence that I could write for days about the significance of this or that line. ‘Oh Comely’ in particular is a stunning journey from suppressed love for a trailer-trash sexually-promiscuous woman, with line after line of sexual innuendo, to the mass graves of World War II victims.

In album opener, ‘King of Carrot Flowers Part 1’ he sings: “This is the room one afternoon I knew that I could love you, and from above you how I sank into your soul, into that secret place where no one dares to go”. By track 4 he is walking into the death camp gas showers with them, shouting: “And in the dark we will take off our clothes, and they’ll be placing fingers through the notches in your spine, and when all is breaking…”, and you, as a listener, actually believe he’s there, dying with them. The final track, ‘Two-Headed Boy Part 2’ is tear-inducing. Mangum explores Anne Frank’s father’s heartbreaking situation -he was the only member of his nuclear to family to survive The Holocaust – but more amazing is the moment where Mangum reconstructs Anne Frank’s brother’s skull after his brains are blown out, and he sings the simple but devastating line, “And in my dreams you’re alive and you’re crying”. If good music is supposed to make you feel emotional, then nothing is better than this. Tears well up on every listen

At the end of the track you can hear Mangum putting down his guitar and leaving – a prescient moment. This was Neutral Milk Hotel’s, and Mangum’s last album. Unable to cope with the success that ITAOTS brought, Mangum disbanded NMH in 1998, and never recorded an album again. And despite the very occasional public performance, and an ever growing following, it looks unlikely that Mangum will ever be properly involved in the world of music again. But it matters not as there’s enough on In The Aeroplane Over the Sea to last a lifetime.

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