Welcome to the twenty-fourth episode of A Scene In Retrospect, dear readers of It Djents! Even within the diverse context of this feature, the album we (read: PR/social media manager Inter, staff writer Jonce, and yours truly) will be tackling today might be called somewhat of an outlier. You be the judge, I suppose, but that shouldn’t take away from the record’s importance. As you have probably read above already, this episode is dedicated to In the Aeroplane Over the Sea by Neutral Milk Hotel. Please enjoy!
Jonce Marshall Palmer
Never has a better album come from a band this poorly-named. The sound of In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is just as absurd and whimsical as the name of those who made it: Neutral Milk Hotel. Since its release in 1998, this album has been ignored, then praised, then made the subject of countless 4chan memes, and now held up as one of the most sacred concept albums of the 20th century. Its history is just as odd as the album itself.
Childlike and naïve, Jeff Mangum and company take the listener on a UFO-ride through time and space, whistling past little Spanish boys playing pianos on fire, holy rattlesnakes, homicidal parents, mountains topped with a suspicious white substance, communists, and other such curiosities. Fuzz bass and singing saws make up the soundtrack to this grotesque adventure that blurs the lines between history and the future. Of course, this insane quest is fuelled by the death of Anne Frank, a young author whose life was stolen by the greatest evil the world has ever known.
It is at this point that I think many critics forget what makes In the Aeroplane… so important for young adults such as myself. As Mangum sat reading ‘The Diary of a Young Girl’, I imagine that he cried not just out of mourning for the life of a young girl, but also all of the experiences that had been lost. At age 15, Anne Frank died at the time between myopic childhood and grim adulthood, when her vision was at its most vivid. So Jeff and the gang decided to reach out through 50 years of history and pluck as many sensations and thoughts as they could – from the fabric of time itself – effectively capturing lightning in a bottle. In this way, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea becomes a sort of youthful scrapbook for the ears, as novel as the daydreams of any young person.
And that’s the brilliance of it. In the Aeroplane… reminds us that the term ‘6 million people‘ doesn’t quite cover it. It reminds us that this immense loss includes the death of six million daydreams, six million scrapbooks, six million stories composed by six million authors. It reminds us that it is our silliness and callow that makes us human. Seriously, we wouldn’t be who we are if we weren’t such weirdos.
To talk about an album which is considered one of the best records of the 90’s, and even one of the best records ever done, is a funny task. There are countless reviews, analyses and essays about In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, so that it’s hard to add anything new to the discussion.
One of the most remarkable traits is both the absence and presence of a conceptual idea behind the album. You can easily just listen to a bunch of songs and realize how rich they are, a travel through music history from folk to psychedelic rock, indie, experimental, punk, and so much more. The lyrics reach from a impalpable depth to absurdity, and more often than not, they are both. The overall topic is Jeff Mangum’s experience of reading ‘The Diary of a Young Girl’, which was written by Anne Frank during her years under the horrors of the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands. This experience, and the processing of the things he learned from it about history, human beings, and himself can be viewed as the reasons for the subtle chaos, but also for the depth, creativity and emotional weight of the album. The lyrics are definitely one of the most outstanding parts of this record, and they affected me more than I properly realized during the years, especially when visiting the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam and visualizing many imaginations which occured while reading the diary or listening to the songs. One might say a record by a 90’s lo-fi indie band is too profane to comment on this incident, but it’s not about historical commentary, it’s a about a deeply moved person who learns about the dreads of history.
Another interesting aspect surrounding the album seems to be Jeff Mangum’s relationship to the legacy and praise which this piece of art he was part of gained and received. Our need for completeness, persepctive and insight put a lot of pressure on him, especially as a lyrcist. Are you responsible to explain your art? Or do you feel that every explanation ravishes personal experience and damages your momentun when you just created it?
Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is one of the most immersive, yet disoncerting journeys in modern music. It’s a must-have experience, worth your time and your thoughts.
Hello, my name is Dominik, and I never listened to In the Aeroplane Over the Sea before assigning myself to contribute to this article (in addition to my usual duties of organizing and compiling it, that is). Why that is I cannot really put my finger on; between sheer ignorance and being turned off by hipsters worshipping it like the goddamn Gospel, the sea of possible excuses is wide, deep, and treacherous. Good thing I have an airplane to fly over it.
Wow. I’m so lame.
Aaanyhow, uncalled for pleasantries aside, the feeling of abundant creativity that emanates from every song (and truly every note played) on this album is baffling. Jeff Mangum is notorious for being an oddball, both in music and his private life, but in a way, that’s exactly what makes In the Aeroplane… the important milestone in music it is. Everybody and their grandma’s poodle can write a concept album, but it takes a madman genius to come up with something this utterly weird and glorious. My friends/colleagues Jonce and Inter have very aptly described the album’s lyrical contents (as well as the implications linked to them) above already, so I’ll spare you any unnecessary repetition.
There is, however, one thorn that makes this beautiful bouquet of musical styles sting like a thousand roses, and that’s Mangum’s vocal performance. Truly, this is the diametrical opposite of the voice inside his head that created the album’s wonderful lyrics: his real, actual voice. I know that the opinions might differ on that front, and that’s totally fine, but to me, he does at times sound like his heart wasn’t 100% in these vocal melodies. Which is a shame, given that the words he puts across in this way are deserving of so much more.
Luckily, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea as a whole belies my theory very vehemently; the passion that went into it is as tangible as Mangum’s inner upheaval. The individual pieces (stylistically and lyrically) that make it up were obviously meticulously tailor-made to fit in this specific way, and together they make for a damn wonderful experience. So if you’re searching for a new perspective on how to compose a concept album, look no further!
And that’s all for today’s episode of A Scene In Retrospect! What are your thoughts on this particular record? Are there any bands/albums you’d recommend for inclusion in this feature? Leave it all in the comments!
I hope to see you all back here in fourteen days for another classics review. Until then, stay safe, and as always…
…thanks for reading!