Editor’s Note: Tomorrow, Neutral Milk Hotel will headline the Ravenlaw Stage at Ottawa’s Folkfest at 8:15 p.m. This is particularly exciting for fans who thought they wouldn’t have the chance to see them perform, ever. After the release of their sophomore studio album In the Aeroplane Over the Sea in 1998, the band went on hiatus indefinitely. Thank you Jeff Mangum & co. for returning to performance, we are elated! We post this review of their renowned album in anticipation. Yours etc., OSBX
Several months ago, a group of friends were locked in the most intense of conversations: which one album would you take to a deserted island? As the wheels began to turn, classics popping to mind from The White Album & Sgt. Pepper, to Black Star even Silvio Rodriguez; at such high stakes every quintessential album must be considered. Trapped in my thoughts, the albums thrown around were lost on me until someone expressed “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea,” at which point I could not think of an album more fitting.
This sentiment is not shared by many. From the release of Neutral Milk Hotel’s second full LP in 1998, it has been subject to mixed reviews. Along the many criticisms, however, the album’s expression is revered by the harshest critics. Calls of its naivety and lack of compositional complexity were equally met with a praise of prose and the whimsical innocence as the band sews arrangements of singing saws, banjos, French horns and echoes of man on the brink of collapsing in place if it were not for his affection to whom he is singing. Few articles better capture the essence of In the Aeroplane Over the Sea as this Rolling Stone article from its initial release.
With many the question looms on how such an infantile album — devoid of the structure defined by classical musical composition — could be paralleled with The Dark Side of the Moon or Led Zeppelin IV? The truth is it can’t, nor was it supposed to. In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is not as much a work of music rather than high art — a dreamscape to the wonders and terrors of life, and one man’s search for its meaning.
In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is the spiritual awakening of lead singer Jeff Mangum through a medium in which he is capable of expressing himself. Rattled by dreams of Anne Frank, the album is his profession of love for her, a patchwork celebrating the joy of suffering and the salvation one finds within it. Giving into life in the attic, making forbidden attempts of feeling “the notches in your spine,” “how I would push my fingers through your mouth to make those muscles move,” from semen-stained mountain tops with cocoa leaves along the border escaping into an aeroplane over the sea. If only he could save her. If only there was some sort of time machine?
The album is an ultimate expression of Jeff Mangum, pouring out his soul over 11 tracks reaching its climax on “Oh Comely.” Although much of his earlier influences are felt on the album, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea stands alone against his earlier work through the rich complexity this emotional journey provides. When comparing tracks such as “Gardenhead/Leave Me Alone,” “A Baby for Pree” and “Naomi” from On Avery Island to his post-Anne Frank experience on the 1997 live album Live at Jittery Joe’s, there is the sense that much had changed for Jeff Mangum, that his music was no longer an attempt to escape adolescent angst but a larger quest for meaning.
The album means absolutely everything to Mangum, as evidenced by his choice of isolation instead of praise, as well as a lack of new material. The album’s inaccessibility to many demonstrates its uniqueness, an experiential journey we share with Mangum that is his and his alone. It was not made for the purpose of sing along choruses, nor to be immortalized as transcendental genius. Like The Diary of a Young Girl, greatness was never planned, nor organized, and it culminated in the full expression of an individual deep in turmoil and suffering, seeking escape, whether from the attic or from the torment deep inside. In Anne Frank he found his escape, and although he longs to be with her, he learns she will live forever as he will love her forever. Never be afraid, Ghost.
Meaning is not found in brutish attempts to succeed in creating art for others, rather it emanates from that “place where some holy spectacle lies” to live forever; much like the dreams of a young Jewish girl. Before his disappearance, Mangum learned fulfillment is not derived outside the self rather it comes from being you, and only you. In doing so he gave us everything that is and ever will be, an album now 16 years old, transcending time and space, continuing to stir emotions with old and new fans alike. We all have our moments, dreams where we can “be anything at all,” however the task is to individually to find meaning within the kaleidoscope.