Neutral Milk Hotel: 1998 Album ‘In the Aeroplane Over the Sea’ Turns 20
In the incredible and varied history of Pop music in America, there are often albums that are good, and there are often albums that are great.
But few times in music history has any record ever changed the idea of what can be expressed musically as much as Neutral Milk Hotel’s “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea.”
The album released 20 years ago Saturday, has left an indelible mark on the sound of indie music, influencing a diverse list of popular indie acts that ranges from The Decemberists to The Shins and Beirut.
Really, almost any indie pop band that has recorded in this century has taken some influence from “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea.”
The album itself, however, has remained somewhat little known since its release in early 1998, garnering a reputation more as a rite of passage among musicians in the worlds of Indie Pop and Lo-fi music than as a hit record.
The reason for this is because the record, unlike many of its better-remembered contemporaries, is decidedly not a cool record.
It is a dark, complex, and deeply personal experiment in expression, a work of poetic art and of dark, sepia toned fairytales. Its sound is at once childlike, sad, and immediate. Its sound swirls out of the speakers, captivating, affecting, and horrifying in equal measure.
The most difficult thing to express about the album is the dreamlike atmosphere it evokes, but it is key to understanding what separates it from any album released before or since.
Jeff Mangum, Neutral Milk Hotel’s reclusive frontman, has said that the album responded to reading “The Diary of Anne Frank,” and having a series of compelling dreams about saving her.
Mangum suffered from frequent night terrors and would often write songs about his dreams, but at no point did he find a subject in them more powerful than his preoccupation with Anne Frank.
The album expresses a deep range of emotions, often seemingly at the same time. Mangum seems to short circuit every rule of human communication to give the images in his head directly to the audience. The lyrics on the record feel very private, as if people were never meant to hear it.
But the sound is carefully orchestrated, and Mangum is a master of musical texture, presenting the album’s sound with the same directness as his lyrics.
The songs are not complicated in composition, often using the same four chords, but at the same time, they sound unlike anything else.
Several songs on the album feature outlandish instruments such as the singing saw, bagpipes, and accordion. The sound it creates is a madhouse blend of punk rock, folk, circus music and everything imaginable is fitted into these songs, often seamlessly.
The album is so odd, so immediately engrossing, and so surprisingly personal and moving that it very nearly defies explanation. It is an album whose mystique cannot be separated from its sound.
Playing into this is the elusive mystique of Jeff Mangum himself. At the end of the heart-wrenching final song on the album, “Two-Headed Boy Part 2,” Mangum can be heard laying down his guitar and silently walking out of the studio.
In many ways, that final sound expresses what he did with his life after finishing the album.
After a few months of touring in support of the album, Mangum got tired of talking about himself, even going so far as saying, a few years later, “The experience made me realize that music couldn’t really save people.”
Since then, even as the album has gained status as a legend, Jeff Mangum has remained almost entirely out of the public eye.
Though he recently embarked on a reunion tour with the rest of Neutral Milk Hotel, he did very little press, and did not allow fans or journalists take pictures of him.
His reclusiveness has become infamous, and he has occasionally been dubbed the “J.D. Salinger of Indie Rock.”
This comparison is very apt, as Mangum has a stature in the world of Indie Rock as more of a literary giant than any sort of traditional rock star.
Despite his reclusiveness, however, he remains a voice for the eccentrics and oddballs, and for thousands of kids, myself included, who once felt too ashamed to express themselves fully and directly.
Though he has disappeared from the public eye, now possibly for good, his influence continues to be potent. Even now, 20 years later, there is not album, not even among all its imitators, that sounds like this.
This album is one of a kind. It is a testament to the beauty and wonder and oddity of life, and an enduring masterpiece.