Review Summary: A beautiful, near-unparalleled masterpiece that, with a blistering vigilance, operatically sings to the greatest depths of the human soul like none-other.
Though the phrase "changing the face of music" is thrown around a lot, it's pretty rare that an album that comes out actually does so: not only does something different, but does it loud enough for the entire world to hear it. One could cite albums like Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band for essentially creating Progressive-Rock, or The Dark Side of the Moon for defining it and transforming it from a psychedelic curiosity into an important sub-genre of Rock music. Sure, Abbey Road and Animals are all classic albums whose influence can be seen sporadically throughout the music of other Rock groups, but these albums simply cannot compare to the aforementioned two in terms of innovation and legacy. Though it isn't exactly a record of yesteryear, having been released in 1998, Neutral Milk Hotel's In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is the definition of a modern classic, being entirely unique (something almost every record fails to do) while also speaking to the human heart more passionately and singing to its depths more effectively than even the best of albums. It is a work that any die hard indie musician wishes they had written, as it flies far higher than the genre's best; better than anything written by Radiohead of Modest mouse.
Perhaps one of the most notable aspects of the group, especially of its enigmatic frontman, the sweater-sporting Jeff Mangum, is that in the midst of all the Alternative acts simply aiming for gut-wrenching coolness, Neutral Milk Hotel aimed for authenticity to a beautifully horrific musical vision that is, in a wholly non-exaggerated sense, almost completely unlike anything ever conjured up by any other musical entity. There is nothing even remotely normal about this record, almost to the point that talking about the group is a herculean task, from Mangum's nightmarish and warm lyrics to the band's irregular carnival-esque instrumentation and its perplexing cohesiveness, especially with a collection of amazingly wild songs that still manage to strike such a powerful chord in the listener. At the beginning of this musical journey, one is presented a somber, yet sweet acoustic ballad decorated with Mangum's iconic nasally voice that quickly leads into a bizarre ambient build-up of guitars, horns, and musical saws over which he stiflingly belts, "I love you, Jesus Christ / Jesus Christ, I love you, yes I do". It's not uncommon that exactly at this moment, people give up with the record and immediately switch back to more accessible music, but from sitting through it in its entirety, Mangum finally immerses us in his previously inaccessible and surreal world, finally revealing to us a confusing universe that is just as complex and inexplicable, yet undeniably engaging and memorable as our own.
The group's endlessly mystifying leader and songwriter creates this disjointed alternate-reality with the aforementioned eclectic range of instruments, using everything from Jeff's overly distorted acoustic guitar, an extremely fuzzy bass, and a whirring and clipped musical saw to several different kinds of horns, an orchestral bass drum, a warm accordion, and so much more. But even throughout the album, there is variety, as each song is backed with a different and random assortment of wacky instruments, always creating a familiar, yet new soundscape. In the Aeroplane Over the Sea can also be majestically praised for being the best-sounding Lo-Fi album ever produced, as despite its absolute distortion and fuzziness, this seminal work is surprisingly easy on the ears and would probably lose much of its charm if it was actually produced "well". This is quite uncharacteristic of me, as I am a die hard audiophile, collecting as little of my music in MP3's and as much of it on Vinyl and CD as possible, but there is something about Aeroplane's production that is simply perfect for the music, giving it a charm that few pieces of music share. Mangum's right-hand man and studio-engineer, Robert Schneider, understood one aspect of Lo-Fi production that so many other Lo-Fi bands ignore: Lofi production, despite its moniker, does not need to be bad to be good.
Part of In the Aeroplane over the Sea's unique charm lies in the lovely, yet unbearable atmosphere that this production helps to create. Mangum's opus amost sounds as if it comes from a strange universe filled with carnivals, energetic and fuzzy Folk Rock, and what can only be described as weird flying sounds. It's difficult to cite examples of albums that do the same thing, but this almost aesthetically cacophonous album paints images in one's mind; images of a sort-of fantastical Penny Arcade conjure themselves up from the luscious Lo-Fi soundscapes while Mangum's actual songwriting packs this world with every emotion in the human condition. There is something so simple and perfect about each song, despite them all being composed of beginner's guitar chords - you can play every song on this album if you've played guitar for at least a year - that even some of the greatest, most technical albums sometimes can't compare to. What makes them all so perfect is Mangum's passionate, meaningful, and personal attitude to each song. Even on something like "Two-Headed Boy", which is entirely composed of nothing more than the singer's strained, throaty voice assisting the guitar, a strong feeling is evoked simply from his performance, driving the song forward with a charismatic energy and urgency, conveying a mood that is simultaneously whimsical and urgent, nostalgic and somber. Despite being nothing more than vocals and basic guitar chords, the song sounds special and unique, not quite like any other acoustic-songwriter. Thus, one discovers In the Aeroplane Over the Sea's charm; it has the special ability to convey so many feelings at once, all back dropped by one of the most imaginative worlds ever created and all tied together with a stellar cohesiveness that is sparsely challenged.
But it still wouldn't be what it is without what is possibly its most important trait: Mangum's undeniably beautiful lyrics, which he uses to tie the ribbon around the fantasy world he creates. The record is a surreal concept album about - well, Anne Frank, sex, ovaries, tomatoes and radiowire, and a little boy in Spain playing pianos filled with flames. In other words, its lyrics revolve around a nightmare that rarely makes sense, oftentimes becoming so otherworldly and disturbing as to defy comprehension itself. It's even made more inaccessible to fans as it requires that even to have a somewhat cursory understanding of its meaning, one must know its backstory.
Jeff Mangum, the infamously hermetic man that he is, has been known for writing incredibly surreal lyrics based off of recurring night terrors, with some songs becoming so horrific as to simply defy expectations as to what could be thought of by human beings. Thus, his lyrics have always retained a very personal and human feel to them while being incredibly alien and foreign, a fascinating mixture no doubt. The lyrics to In the Aeroplane Over the Sea would bring all of this to a completely different level, however, being derived from an experience that, while odd, is deeper than anything Jeff had written before: the terrors induced from his reading of The Diary of a Young Girl.
Throughout his reading of the book, he was tormented by a series of related night terrors, mostly surrounding a beautiful Jewish family hiding during World War II and the inevitable, tragic events that occurred around them. "I wished I could have gone back and saved them with some sort of time machine," he told an interviewer, basically explaining that he began to mourn so much for the constant destruction of this family that all he could imagine trying to do was preventing the awful incident from happening, even claiming that he cried for days after its completion. Certainly, the man might come off as a bit insane as to be affected by a novel in such an unusually powerful way, but it's more than evident that the album is part of some sort of mesmerizing, esoteric horror that evoked such a strong personal experience that even glimpses of in musical form evoke such strong feelings.
The album begins so expertly with "King of Carrot Flowers, Pt. 1", a simple acoustic ballad over which Mangum recalls his grim, yet peaceful childhood fantasies spent with whom we can assume is Frank (or something analogous to her in Jeff's mind) that, while so surreal, rings so truly to the bittersweet experiences of youth. "When you were young, you were the king of carrot flowers / And how you built a tower tumbling through the trees / In holy rattlesnakes that fell all around your feet," re reminisces, telling of a romance between two lovers tragically underscored by stories of their parents' violent discord ("And your mom would stick a fork right into Daddy's shoulder / And Dad would throw the garbage all across the floor"). Along with his words, his music is sweet, his strange voice somehow smoothing the song out, all while backed by a lovely sounding accordion.
But it doesn't last very long, as these innocent recollections are soon cut short by "King of Carrot Flowers, Pt. 2", beginning with a powerful, droning church organ and a simple arpeggiating Banjo. All of a sudden, Mangum begins unexpectedly shouting, "I love you, Jesus Christ! / Jesus Christ, I love you, yes I do!". One immediately shuts their mind off, as why Jeff would be saying these things is not immediately clear. Perhaps its meaning is derived from the combination of the ridiculous manner in which he sings (straining his voice and singing ridiculously loudly) combined with the juxtaposition of these lyrics praising the goodness of life to sad recounts of childhood, suggesting an existential, satirical critique of extreme religion. After hearing Mangum reminisce about these bittersweet stories that ultimately end in tragedy, hearing one's praise of Jesus' ability to make life wonderful feels somewhat absurd, essentially stating that life is instead rather sad and unfortunate. This belief is even further expanded on a little later on the title track, "In the Aeroplane Over the Sea" ("What a beautiful dream that could flash on the screen / In the blink of an eye and be gone from me"), explaining that for all the happiness and beauty in the world, there is even more torment and sadness.
The final section of the opening suite, "King of Carrot Flowers, Pt. 3", is an energetic, yet bleak overview of the life to come, summarizing each of its parts in a very brief, pessimistic tone ("Up and over / We go through the wave and undertow / I will float until I learn how to swim / Inside my mother in a garbage bin"). Beginning each section of lyrics with "Up and over..." over the top of incredibly Punky music, he finally goes through to the end of life at breakneck speed, ultimately trying to establish that life is meaningless, short, and tragic. With all the parts of the "King of Carrot Flowers" suite, Mangum expertly introduces us to his terrible world and its confused and troubling emotion while also preparing us for its undefinable world. Most of all, it allows Mangum the opportunity to take his audience on this bizarre musical journey of his. It's an absolutely perfect way to open the album, and has only been equated to by the likes of Pink Floyd's "In the Flesh?", which opens The Wall.
Though there isn't exactly a linear story line throughout the album's songs, Mangum continues to tell heart-wrenching stories about these fantastical dreams. The title track, a warm psychedelic acoustic ballad with musical saws, brush drums, and trumpets, covers Mangum's musings about how little of the time spent with his Frank-ish lover was spent, yet how beautiful it all was. The following "Two-Headed Boy" cryptically tells a subtly disturbing, yet wholly affecting tale of a bizarre, robotic two-headed child that never really makes its whole meaning clear, though there seems to be very heavy undertones of alienation from the rest of his family and the paranoia of being Jewish in Nazi Germany. While there isn't any logic to its fractured story, one pieces it together in their minds in all of its tortured, ambiguous glory. This isn't even half of the tale that the album offers, and one of its best traits is that following it along and trying to uncover its possible meanings is such an engrossing and fun experience.
But one thing is clear in the midst of the album's idiosyncrasy; Jeff Mangum's life, if the pieces of it we know are true, has not been an easy one, both in and out of his dreams. Perhaps his enigmatic nature is due to that rather than choosing to engage in the world and all of its confusion, he chooses to create a small world for himself that he can control. Yes, all the happy and gleeful parts of In the Aeroplane Over the Sea's world are surreal and nonsensical, and some of its disturbing parts as well, but the most critical aspects of it relate so universally to the most powerful parts of the human condition. Yes, he may be dealing with Anne Frank and Two-Headed Boys that eat radio wire, but with these things, he is able to profoundly explore love, loss, emptiness, sadness, and alienation, all things both Jeff and his audience have dealt with.
What makes this album's "story" so engrossing, in all of its incomprehensibility, is that through all of its otherworldly and alien nature, it manages to be so familiar and human. As we listen to Mangum tell us his deeply personal stories, his pain, happiness, confusion, and complacency slowly begin to win us over and touch our hearts. We've all been in love and wanted to fly our lovers in aeroplanes over the sea, we all have bittersweet childhood days where we were perhaps the king of carrot flowers, we've all had horrible and tragic experiences akin to Jeff's in "Oh Comely", and we've all felt alone and terrified like a two-Headed boy. What truly makes Aeroplane so wonderful is that above everything else that it is, it is the story of a man trying and failing to understand a terrible world that is vital for him to understand. It may not be the first time this tale has been told, it has hardly been told so uniquely and eloquently. It's such a personal story to Jeff, and the fact that he even had some of the elements of its ruptured story in his mind is slightly embarrasing, but his courage to say it to the entire world makes it all even more commendable and beautiful.