Review Summary: A powerful and human exploration into sound
It’s hard to begin when talking about Neutral Milk Hotel’s In The Aeroplane Over The Sea. There are so many elements in play that dissecting them one by one serves as a daunting task. From the lyrical ambiguity to the expression of sound heard from the nine members. It is also particularly difficult to stay modest with my opinions on this album because I believe that what Singer/Songwriter Jeff Magnum has created is nothing short of the essence of music. And though that certainly must come off as a bold thesis it is also one that I am confident I can competently defend. Though not immediately apparent I believe that juxtaposition is one of the most powerful elements in this album, namely the juxtaposition between lyrics and sound. And perhaps juxtaposition is the wrong word for it and the better word would be balance. Because within this album we hear a balance between simple and pure instrumental work counterbalanced by lyrics which have famously been considered strange and absolute in their ambiguity.
Lyrics, thus are the first aspect of this work that I will examine. Magnum’s words from an objective stance initially come off as almost completely nonsensical with verses pertaining to everything from love, life, religion, death and most intriguingly, sexuality. And though you could spend hours reading online print-outs of the lyrics you would probably come to find that his songs seem to be about whatever you would like to believe they are about. The metaphors at play are often anything but clear cut and I believe that this was in actuality Magnum’s intention. Because the listener can only speculate what the songs are about but it is not difficult to hear what Magnum is really saying. From the opening tracks to both parts of Two Headed Boy there is honesty in the idea that no matter how many strange metaphors strain from his voice there really are no ways of describing a pure feeling. And in this acceptance there is beauty in listening to Magnum’s futile attempts of describing all the things that pain him. Sometimes I would find myself singing along to O Comely and there would be a certain point of empathy; that whatever secrets I was following along with were very grave and very sad. Another small but important theme within Magnum’s lyrics are his subtle but stirring verses regarding sexuality. They play at a level below any thesis within his songs but allude to a certain feeling of regression and confusion that I found quite powerful.
All of this rests on top of often very expressive guitar and horn work. I should say right now that instrumentally this album is neither thin nor simple however the melodies always seem to complement but never interject on Magnum’s voice. There is always a respectful balance between lyrics and melody. The simplicity of the sound juxtaposed with the complexity of what is being sung. Not all of the sound is so simple though. This can be heard in the album’s two instrumentals: The Fool and Untitled. These songs portray feeling and energy just as powerfully as Magnum’s voice otherwise would. Untitled in particular altogether makes you forget that you are listening to such a strange album and reminds the listener that at its heart Neutral Milk Hotel is still a rock band. A lot of what has been constructed within the album is incredibly powerful even in the wake of what on first listen could be considered silly or melodramatic.
And melodrama is a particularly unique tool used by the band to enrich the messages of their songs. In The King of Carrot Flowers Pts. 2&3 Magnum sings ‘I love you Jesus Christ’ in an obnoxious and almost mocking tone giving the listener a feeling of uncertainty towards what is being heard. It feels as if the listener’s senses are being played off of making it a confusing album to sit down and examine. The Fool is another example of a song that sounds silly at first with its horns playing a sad but messy marching tune. But in the intensity of that song you can feel the weight of the sound on your shoulders. It is unusual to hear horns in rock and alternative but I came to find it incredibly expressive and one of the more important factors contributing to overall the success of the album.
At the beginning of this review I stated that I believed In The Aeroplane Over The Sea captured the essence of what music is. When I say that I mean that after listening to the light songs and the dark songs and all of the highs and lows and strangeness a certain feeling is realized and there really are no words for it. And just as Magnum reaches with every strange sentence he writes I too find myself reaching to find the right words for what is encapsulated within that wonderful album. A thing so completely balanced that it hardly exists at all; it simply rests on par with the human frequency. It seems to me a work of supernatural genius and something at its heart wholly expressive.