CULT SENSATION, lo-fi masterpiece; American band Neutral Milk Hotel’s seminal second LP In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is one of the greatest albums ever written. What makes this album so good lies in the lyrics, in the music, but also in pure soul that is conjured up between them. This album feels alive; it doesn’t just paint a picture, it brings the sense that you’re a part of the scene that is playing out before you. There are 11 tracks of pure poetic excellence, which flow effortlessly into each other, complementing the previous songs and welcoming in the new. This album is timeless.
Before the release of In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, Neutral Milk Hotel already had a pretty decent underground following. Their debut, On Avery Island, was, and is, very enjoyable. There are some standout tracks, such as ‘Naomi’, ‘Song Against Sex’ and ‘A Baby For Pree’. But unlike its successor, On Avery Island lacks the unity that would in time. This makes In the Aeroplane Over the Sea somewhat of a concept album, mostly through front man Jeff Mangum’s lyrics.
Inspired by weird dreams and an obsession with The Diary of a Young Girl, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea refers back to these in perhaps the most surrealist way possible; through time travel, genocide, sex, love, religion, childhood, Europe, death, family, I could go on and on. Take ‘Oh Comely’ for example, a song comprising of around five chords, driven forward by Mangum’s poetic ramblings that wind a nonsensical story that entices and intrigues. It makes ‘Jabberwocky’ sound like War and Peace. But with these lyrics comes wrought emotion, and while the story isn’t exactly easy to follow, Mangum feels like he’s letting us in on a tale of woe and regret. Thanks in part to his very gritty, real and often strained vocal abilities, Mangum’s lyrics feel personal, honest and true, while often having no literal meaning. It’s no surprise then, that after ‘Oh Comely’ ends, a background voice is heard to cry: “holy shit!”
With these lyrics comes music that matches it perfectly. While centred on Folk music, Neutral Milk Hotel expands their musical repertoire to so much more than that. Obviously there’s acoustic driven songs such as ‘Two-Headed Boy’ and ‘Oh Comely’, but then there’s ‘The Fool’, which is an instrumental comprising of almost entirely of horn melodies, and ‘Communist Daughter’, a song that consists of Mangum’s muted vocals, chopped up and sampled guitar feedback, guitar and a lone trumpet solo . Then we have the mighty ‘Holland, 1945’, one of the more rowdy songs on the record. Opening with straight acoustic guitar, the song indulges with some layered vocals and heavy, fuzzed-out bass guitar and crash drums, not unlike something you’d hear on, say, a Sleigh Bells record. And over all of this comes the distorted battle cry of those horns again, crying triumphantly over the twisted musical and lyrical fantasies of Jeff Mangum.
The opening tracks ‘The King of Carrot Flowers’ parts one, two and three kick things off excellently both lyrically and musically. The deep, chunky acoustic guitar riffs accompany lyrics about childhood and imagination; it almost feels positive and upbeat, despite the occasional dark turns in the lyrics: “And your mom would drink until she was no longer speaking/ And your dad would dream of all the different ways to die.” The bass and organ let this musical depth grow. When we get to parts two and three, creeping strings accompany Mangum’s cries of ‘I love you Jesus Christ!’ like a man finding a new life through religion. The howling electric guitars and horns eventually spiral into a whirlwind of a cataclysmic array of energy and madness; it’s an exhilarating opening.
Following tracks ‘In the Aeroplane Over the Sea’ and ‘Two-Headed Boy’ both bring the music back to something vaguely Folk like. This is especially evident in the title track, which sways, not unlike a shanty or traditional Folk number. The singing saw is an especially nice touch, creating these atmospheric howls that sound like something ripped from a dusty old record. Mangum’s lyrics seem to be based on love, almost as if pining for someone through nostalgia. ‘Two-Headed Boy’ saps its energy from the vocals, and the sheer power that comes from them. Mangum’s vocals go from muted and humble to passionate cries, his rapid guitar playing pushing the urgency of his cause.
When we reach the final stretch of the album, we’re greeted with one of the best three track runs in music. ‘Ghost’ is fast paced, with these deep rumbling horn and bass backings and infectious kick drum beats. The build up is steady, but as the climax approaches the drums get wilder, the horn rhythms become layered, and Mangum’s vocals become joyous and emotional. ‘Untitled’ is utterly mad, like taking a tumble down a rabbit hole and finding yourself in Wonderland. As the electronic bass dies away, circus like keys are introduced and the insane drums return, this time accompanied by a bagpipe of all things. The song reaches its peak with some wonderful backing vocals, and finally moves into the final track ‘Two-Headed Boy, Pt.2’. Unlike the first two tracks, this song takes it back to just vocals and guitar. Mangum’s vocals are melancholy, sad, like someone grabbing your heart and squeezing it hard. The vocal melodies take us through several phases before finally ending on the familiar reprise of an earlier song: ‘Two-headed boy, she is all you could need/ she will feed you tomatoes and radio wire’. It’s so damn emotional but impossible to explain why.
Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is totally insane. But out of that insanity comes something incredibly beautiful. Sometimes it’s hard to explain why, what with all surrealist lyrics, emotive vocals and eclectic instrumentation, but if you just sit back and let it take you away, it’s bound to evoke at least some emotion.
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