Review Summary: An eccentric but sincere indie rock classic.
If any record could be accused of being undermined by its own critical reverence, “In the Aeroplane…” could definitely be a contender. A great majority of twenty-something, emaciated, thick-rimmed Brooklynites would tell you that this LP is indie music’s magnum opus, a New Testament for the Pitchfork generation, the apex of the lo-fi movement. These people should be immediately disregarded, not because “Aeroplane” is a bad record – it certainly isn’t in any shape or form. It’s simply that this type of thinking leads to a manner of closed-mindedness that has plagued every generation’s posse of critic. It’s this myopic need possessed by a great deal of the music press to place every song, album, band, bass line (and forever so forth) into list-form under the pretence of finding the best thing of a thing since the creation of all things - it’s dishonest. Absolute statements should not be made unless the author of these statements has an absolute knowledge of their subject (Strangely enough, some writers have the gall to assume this of themselves). The worth found in any kind of art is subjective and the critic’s own praise is relative.
That all said, “In the Aeroplane…” succeeds because it manages to embody a great deal of the qualities which cause the modern alternative rock critic to salivate. A main one of these is how the record simultaneously sounds traditional and folky whilst never faulting to appear consistently exotic and unknowable. A lot of this is achieved through front-man Jeff Mangum’s surrealist and evocative imagery. During the album’s 39 minutes and 55 seconds, references are made to synthetic flying machines, carrot flower monarchs, and two-headed boys.
Despite the inherent weirdness of Mangum’s prose, it often succeeds in creating or drawing on some sort of mood. The title track alone elicits feelings of joy, grief, nostalgia, and careless celebration. The whole of “Aeroplane” is an unwaveringly intense listen, which is also why it evokes strong opinions from both the lovers and haters of the album. Many are put off by Mangum’s reedy singing voice, which while often shows an impressive lung capacity, can be quite grating at times (especially in “Oh Comely”).
Others may find fault in the sheer business of tracks like “King of Carrot Flowers, Part 2 and 3”, “Holland 1945”, and “Ghost”, which to the fresh ear can sound noisy and monotonous, though to others are joy to pick apart. The musicianship of the record has also been criticised by some, describing the chord structures and time signatures as basic or even amateurish. However, elitists such as these should probably have their knuckle rapped for treating the listening of music like maths.
The simplicity of the song arrangements do nothing to detract from the record, and can hardly be described as trite or uninspired. In fact, they contribute to the LP’s aesthetic of being rather strange to an unsettling degree yet maintaining an undeniably sincere emotional centre that so many cooler-than-thou indie bands of the time lacked.
The three tracks “Holland 1945”, “Communist Daughter”, and “Oh Comely” are where the album’s much toted influence from the diary of Anne Frank s most apparent. Holland 1945, the fastest paced and poppiest song on the record, vaguely details the events of Frank’s final year and begins with the bizarre but blunt “The only girl I’ve ever loved/Was born with roses in her eyes/But then they buried her alive/One evening, 1945”. The track then descends into complete chaos, with horns blaring and the band struggling to keep up with Magnum’s hysterical and arresting vocals. It’s absolutely thrilling.
In contrast, “Communist Daughter” strips everything back, Magnum even sounds like the producer has slipped a couple of Valium in his drink before recording. His tired, almost spoken word rendition of the line “Semen stains the mountain tops” directs the listener’s thoughts to the infamous behaviour of Russian soldiers during the last few months of World War Two. By holding back and choosing not to expand on or explain the lyrics in an on-the-nose fashion, Magnum shows his maturity and skill as a lyricist. “Communist Daughter” reminds us that evil acts can bring life as well as death and works as a stark parallel to “Holland 1945”. “Oh Comely” is the epic centrepiece of the record and brings the narrative to the present day, where Magnum imagines that time is not linear and wishes that he had the power to correct past wrongs, and that sadly, there isn’t any sort of time machine that can do that.
Though “In the Aeroplane…” did not set the world on fire when it was first released, its popularity grew during the resulting years until it finally became the iconic monolithic record that it’s treated by many today. Many of the current main-players of the alternative scene have roots in the album, such as Arcade Fire, The Decemberists, Animal Collective, Wolf Parade, and Sunset Rubdown. Though it is a shame that Neutral Milk Hotel imploded a few years after “In the Aeroplane”, the record accomplishes so much in it’s brief run-time that it doesn’t warrant a follow-up.