Review Summary: And 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...
'The moment you think you understand a great work of art, it's dead for you.'
- Oscar Wilde.
I am not a religious man by any stretch of the imagination, but the closest I come to such an experience is through music, and I would expect the same is true for a great many non-believers. The vast majority of the time, that connection is merely coincidental, and has its roots simply in undeniable and transcendent beauty, like Sigur Ros' ( )
. But occasionally there's a record that seems from every angle so inherently spiritual and emotionally deep that it forces me to take a step back and doubt my doubt; when this happens, it's impossible to avoid, and somewhat unnerving in the best way imaginable. If you'll excuse me for a moment, I'd like to correct myself; when I said this sort of thing comes along 'occasionally', what I really meant was 'once'. Ever.
Jeff Mangum and Neutral Milk Hotel are a far cry from most so-hailed Gods and Goddesses of the musical domain past and present; they possess neither virtuosic technical ability nor a widespread mainstream appeal, and their aesthetic - rooted in folk singer/songwriting - is not one particularly renowned for its divine output. All of these things are irrelevant, because In The Aeroplane Over The Sea is one of those rare albums which seems removed from common creative processes. Where most music is constructed from a range of instruments, Aeroplane seems not to bother itself with such questions of necessity and technique: the presentation of every passage and every song seems perfectly natural, so when the title-track calls for nothing more than an acoustic guitar, some brass in the bridge and an ethereal wind-like whistle in the background, it doesn't feel like Neutral Milk Hotel have decided that 'this will be an acoustic track.' It's just where the lyrics take the music to - somewhere stripped down and personal.
Elsewhere, there are static eruptions on Holland, 1945 where the album begins to become less stable, and energetic marching drums as Ghost picks the record back up from the down-tempo Oh, Comely. Trumpets lead The Fool, one of two eerie instrumental interludes. But Aeroplane maintains a common aesthetic, gritty and grounded from start to finish. The folk instrumentation on offer is ever-changing, diverse and produced with a raw edge, like a grainy collection of photographs taken in thousands of different places but with a single unifying theme. But these aren't conscious structural blueprints; they're simply where the ideas on display go next. Songs - especially in the record's latter stages - fade into one another, giving the impression of continuity while Mangum's lyrics maintain the balance between mystery and perceptibility. There are more challenging cuts - like Oh, Comely (standing at over 8 minutes) - but they add to the atmosphere and musical depth of the whole. And once again, though it drops and peaks brilliantly at the halfway point there's not a moment where it feels artificial or deliberate; it's just how the story needs to be told.
And hence we arrive at the reason why Aeroplane isn't just a bit of fun recorded on a compact disc: the story. Though one would hesitate to call it a narrative in the conventional sense, there is no doubt whatsoever that the abstract imagery and dreamlike poetry represents a passage of time, probably confused, in which things happen. What
those things are is not the point. There are numerous references to childhood, wartime, the Holocaust, sex, God, family and nature, but they never seem to collide in a way that makes sense in a straightforward manner. It's impossible to deny that lines like, 'she will feed you tomatoes and radio wires
mean something in their context - Mangum is not the type to throw around meaningless metaphors - but nothing remains concrete for more than a few seconds. Aeroplane is a lyrical overload, moving with such pace and ease through ideas and scenery that it's difficult to focus on, but the lasting impression is, however intangible, incredibly powerful, due in no small part to Mangum's emotive, unorthodox vocals which stretch in range from the high-pitched opening of King Of Carrot Flowers to the low-pitched conversational tone of Communist Daughter, always extremely dramatic.
Even if you were able to find Jeff Mangum, I would hazard a guess that he would struggle to explain In The Aeroplane Over The Sea, and that is arguably the easiest way to convey how different-class it is. The words that drip from his lips on Two-Headed Boy hold no calculated poignancy. The lyrical and musical twists resemble something far more stream-of-consciousness, akin to the sonic equivalent of automatic writing. Summoning the ghost of one of history's most tragic characters and weaving an organic thread of humanity through the gaps, the songwriting on display throughout is indisputably the work of a genius with something important to say. And it doesn't speak straight to you - heaven knows that over a decade later Aeroplane remains enigmatic and dynamic - but in both its metaphors and its most straightforward assertions there is an instinctive carpe diem
drive at its heart. What it means beyond that is entirely up to you, and it's not something I could ever write down, but I guarantee you one thing: whatever it is, it will sooner or later start to mean a hell of a lot.
'This is the room one afternoon I knew I could love you.'