Review Summary: A little too lo-fi for it's own good, but Mangum's baffling mind is completely unfolded here; filled to the brim with a colorful imagery, instrumentation, and soundscapes.
As is it was with Wilco's "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot", I was cautious not to give into the whole Pitchfork view on great music. Going into the world of this cult classic (and it is, quite the definition of cult classic), my bias already leaned towards something within the realm of "indie douche music for indie douches; etc." And maybe that was a bit unfair on my part, for it clouded any chance of me truly liking this album for a while. Understand, the day I find myself shopping at my local Urban Outfitters, hanging around at Starbucks, and listening to my obscure, indie psychedelic folk music is the day I pledge allegiance to the Pitchfork Nation; God bless pretention.
My original qualms still hold with this album after repeated listens. While I do give a tip of my non-existent hat towards the use of extra fuzzy, extra thick distortion, lets remember, this is lo-fi sound we got here. Actually, not just lo-fi, but lo-fi played LOUDLY with grandiose, soaring numbers. The end result is that songs I would love to blast through my speakers provide a health risk. "Holland, 1945", as much as I love the song, just punches holes through my speakers when It turn it up too loud; all of the noise just oozing out as thick, fuzzy, slush. And that's really the main and only problem here; sometimes the fuzz overcompensates for lack of a good melody ("King of Carrot Flowers Parts 2 and 3"), despite overwhelming crescendos and crashing waves of trumpets and the like.
However, I also found that the more I listened to the album, the old problems didn't exactly disappear, but instead, the old pros that I had weeded out seemed even stronger. But then again, my view on what is actually good about this album goes on to enrage others (most of the hate, aimed at Mr. Jeff Mangum, sorry, I mean, as Mr. Prindle puts it, Mr. Tom Selleck IS Mangum, P.I."; and his overtly emotive voice), which is really the legacy this album left behind. Thanks to these guys, an entire generation of online nerds can argue over whether or not Jeff's voice is ***ty, whether or not these lyrics make sense, and whether or not this album is "good"; and I suppose I'm not helping matters by saying, yes, it is great. In fact, it's utterly fantastic.
It's an odd record though, and this idiosyncratic sound/imagery is the real draw of the album. The instruments are plucked seemingly randomly from time (musical saws, distorted guitars, acoustic guitars, accordions, trumpets, synth, radios), the lyrics are spoken in Jeff Mangum's own secret code, drenched in violent, lovely, disturbing, sexual imagery (mostly, all at once), and the meaning behind the album? Apparently, some sort of tribute to the memory of Ann Frank, even if 75% of this album has nothing to do with her. Confused yet?
Even if you are, it's all wonderful confusion, and the record proves an abstract idea or sound can be pulled together with the right melody. Sure, these songs are utterly simplistic in their construction, yet that, in and of itself, is what makes it so compelling. Simple melodies, drenched in abstract ideas. And it really does hit a certain note, with Mangum's excitingly loud "shout-singing" voice crafting tiny bundles of coded imagery being easily digested.
"Your mom would sink until she was no longer speaking, and dad would dream of all the different ways to die", paint vivid, yet to some of us, familiar images of home. Stark, raw, and utterly splendid. I hate to rant and rave about lyrics, but this album is so stuffed with quotable lyrics, it's ridiculous. The classic "semen stains the mountain tops" line in "Communist Daughter", "And they'll be placing fingers through the notches in your spine" from "Two-Headed Boy", and of course, the horribly stark images of rotting, gaunt Jewish corpses piled in front of men in black coats stirred in the lines "And it's so sad to see, the world agree that they'd rather see their faces filled with flies". This is what cult classics are MADE of.
Of course, the album isn't without great instrumentation. Maybe it's not played with the most finesse, yet it's layered in such a way that truly creates a unique soundscape. The quirky synth notes (which would become a staple of indie music) always tear through a song at the right time, the drums bash your head in a Steven Drozd kind of way, and the horns marvelously pile atop of Muff-Pi charged guitars (specifically, the Spanish horns in "Holland, 1945"). All of these points proven in the two album instrumentals, "The Fool", and, "Untitled"; the first being the sound of some sort of German funeral march (utterly drenched in sorrow), with the later being a psychedelic circus wheel of revolving organs, bagpipes, guitars, horns, and drums. However, the key moments of the album are presented in two polar opposites of songs.
"Oh, Comely", is a harrowing 8+ minute acoustic "epic", mixing the funeral march sound of "The Fool" with Mangum's most heart wrenching performance; just a stark image of him with his acoustic guitar, faced against all the horrors he's plagued with, claiming "And I know they buried her body with others, her sister and mother and 500 families, and will she remember me 50 years later? I wished I could save her, in some sort of time machine. Know all your enemies, we know who are enemies are." It's throughout this song we see just how accurately Mangum can hit those heart fluttering moments.
And as I said, the polar opposite to the grim "Oh, Comely" is the longing and child-like freedom expressed in the title track. Breezy acoustic guitars, quivering ghost like wails, a hearty brass section, paints the image that the cover adorns. A penny arcade beach, with longing for the free skies and oceans. "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." As if Mangum is singing to that poor Jewish girl, before the events of "Holland, 1945" and "Oh, Comely" take place.
All in all though, this album just stands out in time as truly unique. So detached from reality, it seems as if it's stitches were sewn together from fragments of different time periods. A stuffy attic in Holland, an 18th century carnival, a funeral march, and the backyards where we played as children. And really, this is why the album deserves such praise, because in such a humble way, Mangum displays his talent for subtle universalism. This isn't exploded, endorphin fueled Flaming Lips celebration (not that there's anything wrong with that, I love the Lips), but instead, a man sitting alone in an attic, writing songs about different places all in one. So very lush for a lo-fi album, so very baffling yet simple at the same time. "In the Aeroplane Over the Sea" is an album of paradoxes, and it's no wonder Mangum felt like there was no need to write anything more. All was said, unknowingly, on this album.
So criticize all you wish, but this album is just one of those records that brings out the difference in like minds. The typical "indie guy" whom this album was made for may scoff at this, yet turn around and praise some other quirky pop masterpiece. It's just one of those things, you hail it, or you don't. Or, do at least what I do, and respect it for what it is, and appreciate the bands obvious talents. Colorful imagery, instrumentation, and sound crafted like very few others could.
(NOTE: Thanks for the comments, both those who liked my review and those who hated it. I usually only get a half-hour during lunch to type these, so there are bound to me many mistakes in flow, spelling, grammar, etc. I've done my best to correct these quickly, so hopefully my review looks a bit better.
And concerning my first paragraph, I can't figure out if the negativity is pointed at it's typos (a horrible amount of flaws existed in that opening), or the fact I've brought upon myself the wrath of the Pitchfork-cult. Either way, I would like to admit I DO dress like your typical Urban Outfitters guy, albeit, I don't shop there (what a ripoff store!). Anyways, I hope you all understand, Pitchfork readers and writers often do sound horribly stuck up when they review music, and in my opinion, are almost as bad as Rolling Stone when it comes to reviews. At least their not paid off by record companies to give good reviews (though they do have a painfully obvious NME knack for over hyping HORRIBLY OVERRATED BANDS).
Dear me, I've seemed to ramble. )