Review Summary: Ben Thornburgh Presents! College Quizes of the Future.
Name: Will Cullen
Lessons Learned from Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea
Question 1: Explain how Jeff Magnum transcends acoustic guitar clichés?
To this day when you pull up Neutral Milk Hotel on most people’s iBall this is the album it defaults to. Something about In the Aeroplane Over the Sea
seems to really hit people in the gut, it’s just that
album for a ton of folks. The one a friend eagerly shoved into their hands and expanded their mind to a whole host of music outside the radio. And yet, at its core, it is a “sensitive dude with an acoustic guitar” album, something that suggests a very boring album, full of long winded odes to lost women and a vague feeling that the guy on the guitar thinks he’s a lot more talented than he really is.
What Jeff Magnum does that oh so many of the people he inspired totally missed is he uses his acoustic guitar as a weapon. The solo acoustic guitar pieces aren’t gentle prettiness, the starkness of the arrangement tears down any semblance of ironic distance, Jeff Magnum is sitting right in front of you and playing his guts out.
On album highlight “Two-Headed Boy” he thrashes and slams into the thing with an unholy fury. He sings with no semblance of technique, pushing his voice into the red over and over. “And I am listening to hee-are where you are!” he cries, “I am listening to hee-are where you ahh-re!!” It’s a bewildering song, one that is wonderfully gratifying to sing along to because that’s how most of us end up singing along to things anyway, improperly and over enthusiastically.
“Oh Comely” contains the fourth wall busting intimacy of “Two-Headed Boy” but instead of making a huge noise, it slowly builds and swells with the restrained madness of a mental ward at night. “Your father made fetuses with flesh licking ladies/While you and your mother were asleep in the trailer park.” There is no looking away from lyrics like that, there is simply nowhere else to run to. It’s just you and Jeff.
And on the tragic finale, “Two Headed Boy Pt. 2”, the emptiness of the arrangement means you have to hear every single tear stained word. “And in my dreams you’re alive and you’re crying/As your mouth/MOOH-ves in mine!/Soft and swee-ee-eet,” lines so heartbreaking they just drop into your stomach like a brick and sit there, “When we break/We’ll wait for our miracle/God is a place/You will wait for the rest of your life.” Man, I got choked up just writing that.
Question 2: How does the instrumentation further the themes of the album?
When vinyl records once again became the dominant physical medium in 2016, this was the first record to clear 500,000 units sold. It’s basically a post-hipster cliché to have a copy of this underneath a crazy overpriced record player but there is more to it than cred. In the Aeroplane Over the Sea
is a record that sounds like it belongs in the past. It sounds like a distant past that I suspect never existed. The instrumentation here, singing saws, Salvation Army horns, martial snares, bagpipes, were probably never relevant, this combination of old and broken instruments would probably always have brought to mind some sepia toned past.
While In the Aeroplane Over the Sea
indeed takes place in the past, it never wallows in it. This is a scary
album, there are no pleasant memories to be found back here. Horns sway wildly, drums rumble through distortion, bagpipes shriek like insanity herself, and everyone plays like the recording studio is on fire. All this terror is underpinning the story of a young Jewish girl who died when she was 15 due to events completely out of her control so the horror is appropriate. All the instruments on the album seem to have clung to her diary and traveled into into the present, with all the bumps and cracks a journey like that would entail.
Quesiton 3: How does Jeff Magnum evoke the story of Anne Frank?
I’m not a nostalgic person. My theory is that childhood was a rapid series of extreme highs and extreme lows, most clip the lows and only want those highs back. But Jeff remembers that childhood was a very scary place too, full of things you did not even begin to understand, the threat of the unknown was everywhere. He manages to acutely tap into that sense of innocent fear that the life and death of Anne Frank feel more vividly realized here than through anything but her very own diary.
Mom is stabbing daddy, rattlesnakes lie strewn about the floor, fruits falling out from holes, fingers pushed through mouths, dogs dissolve and drain away, green fleshy flowers, faces filled with flies, sparks ring, bullets fly, and the whole world screams and falls apart.
This is not innocence. These are not warm and wonderful memories of some perfect past that never existed. This is that time when you were a child and you caught a glance of something you weren’t supposed to. When an adult lashed out at you in anger. The first time you saw your parents afraid. When a stranger looked at you for a little too long. This is fear. This is horror.
In some aspects, the album surpasses even the diary. All the bits about Anne’s sexual awakening were exercised from most of the published journals, but Jeff captures the simultaneous repulsion and fascination with an unmatched wonder. “Smelling of semen all under the garden.” “Fingers in the notches of your spine.” “From above you how I sank into your soul.” “Semen stains the mountaintops.” All unforgettable, all bewilderingly insightful.
We’ve all had this album for so long it’s become part of the indie rock lifeblood. The Church of Jeff Magnum, which was founded by former Decembrists singer Collin Melloy in 2020, is well on its way to becoming less a cult and more a genuine religion. One with a god we all know exists too (Hi-oh!). Then Ryan Schriber, former editor in chief of Pitchfork, was appointed music chancellor of the United States in 2022 and added this album to high school curriculums. Undoubtedly awesome but it had the same effect putting Anne Frank’s diary into school had, it lessens the emotional wallop that lies at its core. After all this admiration and influence, it’s very important to remember one essential thing about this album.
It is about a grown man who is in love with a dead 15 year old.
Think about the incredible amount of bravery it took to actually make this! Jeff had to really put himself out there with these lyrics (“Hey guys I wrote this song about how I want to have sex with Anne Frank! Guys? Guys?”) And that it came out to be something this dignified and spectacular is nothing short of a miracle.
Question 4: Why does this album continue to hold relevance?
Simple. Despite all the instrumentation and lyrics and Jeff Magnum’s uncanny ability to sound like he’s singing straight out of his nasal cavities from time to time, this is an album about themes that never ever age.
As long as humans are obsessed with death and longing, this album will keep its power. Today, tomorrow, next week, next month, all the way up until they figure out how to import our consciousness into our video game consoles.
Question 5: Briefly summarize your thoughts on Neutral Milk Hotel’s 3rd album and unquestionable magnum opus, 2019’s double album The Sun and the People Who Live There, how does it compare to its inferior predecessor?
People thought there would never be another Neutral Milk Hotel album. When one was announced, people assumed it would be a disappointment. To say it is the greatest album of all time would be an understatement, it is without ques-