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February 14, 2008
A little over a decade ago I was cutting and sewing the days away in a giant San Francisco warehouse, a defunct can factory called the American Industrial Center - how's that for inspired naming? My cohort in clothing crime was a fellow bike geek named Scott, who had a music geek friend, Preston. In those heady days of pre-internet independent rock, you got turned on to the good stuff vis--vis people who were in tune with the times. Preston had a knack for this, over the course of time exposing us to Archers of Loaf, Pavement, Built to Spill and others. One day he dropped us a disc from a weirdly named band called Neutral Milk Hotel, an oddly-titled release called In The Aeroplane Over The Sea, with even stranger cover art. Scott promptly slid the disc into our office boombox, and changed my life (musically, at least) forever after.

Ten years on, much has been written about what is widely, but not quite uniformly, considered an indie classic, if not one of the most substantial recordings of all time. Now celebrating its aluminum anniversary, Aeroplane has experienced a resurgence of sorts - not that it ever really faded - and the ten-year commemoration of its release in February of 1998 has prompted disciples like myself to pause and reflect on what makes the album such an anathema in the annals of (un)popular music. For many, In The Aeroplane Over The Sea holds a special place; for others, the album remains an unknown entity. It surely doesn't help that the mastermind behind Neutral Milk Hotel, Jeff Mangum, packed it up after the release and subsequent tour, virtually disappearing from the musical landscape altogether, becoming what critics and disgruntled fans alike would (fairly or not) call a recluse and/or drug casualty. Yet for every audiophile I meet who rabidly adores this record, there is another who has heard nary a note of it.

Interestingly, there is very little middle ground when dealing with Neutral Milk Hotel and its meager output of two stellar back-to-back LP's (On Avery Island, the band's less-revered debut, was issued in 1995). Conversations on the band fork onto two paths: 1) they are the greatest unsung band in recent memory, or 2) Neutral Who What? The spectrum of reaction caused by this Elephant 6 Collective original is unrivaled in its narrowness, like a switch that's either on or off. Perhaps with a decade's worth of introspection we can shed some light, however dim, on what makes the band and its essential recording worth the attention of today's splintered, passionate and digitally-interfaced music world.


The wall in front of my desk is plastered with stickers and photos, like a college-dorm-collage of things I find interesting. Amongst the visual mayhem is a photo of Grammy-nominated hip-hop producer Danger Mouse eating a bowl of ice cream, wearing a white t-shirt. But it is not just any shirt that he's sporting, since the tee is emblazoned with the Neutral Milk Hotel moniker. In a random way, this shot reflects the strange and distinct influence Neutral Milk Hotel has had on a dizzying range of artists, not to mention the scribes who proffer critical assessments of what has come since.

While Neutral Milk Hotel's all-time sales are likely to remain forever eclipsed by forgettables from Avril Lavigne to Kenny G and Vanilla Ice, the band's aftermath has so saturated academics that many a writer has tried to explain a musician's "sound" by leaning on NMH references. A short list would include: Beirut, Caribou, Decemberists, Bright Eyes, Okkervil River, Arcade Fire, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, Cloud Cult - I could easily keep going. Since the turn of the century, any band that has touched upon the stone of urgent-nasal-folk-punk-lo-fi has gotten the comparison. Those descriptors may indeed be cornerstones of NMH, but as with all things magical, it can't be that simple.

To get a sense of the enchantment, one need only load up In The Aeroplane Over The Sea, hit play, and pay attention. Like all albums that possess the dust - from Let it Bleed to Slanted & Enchanted - the heavy lifting is done within the first few notes. When the opening acoustic guitar strums of "King of Carrot Flowers Part One" hit your eardrums, you're either on this plane or off. (I've played this record for dozens of NMH newcomers, and the result is invariably thus). And when Mangum resolutely begins "When you were young/ you were the king of carrot flowers/ and how you built a tower/ tumbling thru the trees/ in holy rattlesnakes/ that fell all around your feet," you're either locked into his untamed tale or not. It's only seconds later, within these two perfect minutes of music, that you come face to face with Mangum's fierce imagination: "and your mom would stick a fork right into daddy's shoulder/ and your dad would throw the garbage all across the floor." When the song turns the corner, insinuating youthful sex and resigned death, one is disarmed by the sadness, honesty and possible perversity afoot, all of it set to a gorgeous, timeless melody. Welcome to the world of Jeff Mangum.

Frankness and depravity are two essential pillars supporting Aeroplane's elevation into the clouds. Throughout the course of the album's eleven tracks, Mangum lets us into his universe like few other artists, and his outlook is one that calls out the human condition for what it is: rife with hope, wonder, pain, lust, danger, and resolve. His reality is more of a surreality, in which imagination is as true north as it gets; anything can occur, everything is possible. Mangum's recurring allegorical plinth is the perverse tragedy of the Holocaust, using half-veiled allusions to Anne Frank as a vehicle to represent the purity of human nature, something he strives to save and preserve through the album. This is slippery territory for a rock record, and if it were not tackled with such unfailing honesty, it would likely fail miserably.


Orbiting around Mangum's time-lapsed sonic photos of the early 20th Century is a scroll of characters and images that mystify and satisfy. When "King of Carrot Flowers Part One" gives way to "King of Carrot Flowers Parts Two & Three," who knows what to think as Mangum belts "I love you Jesus Christ." Has the album turned from a fervent daydream to fervently evangelical? The driving distortion that envelops the song doesn't clear things up, perhaps best to check the liner notes, where you'll find one of the most daringly blunt sentiments put to sleeve: instead of the song lyrics, we get the stream-of-consciousness statement "a song for an old friend and now a song for jesus christ and since this seems to confuse people I'd like to simply say that I mean what I sing although the theme of endless endless on this album is not based on any religion but more in the belief that all things seem to contain a white light within them that I see as eternal." Amen to that.

After the one-two opening punch, the album settles into the lullaby title track, and it is then that Mangum's dreamy state comes into full focus, as he sings lovingly about the innocence of youth, the mysteries of the physical, and the ghosts of far-off voices. The song also represents the uncanny ability of Mangum to convey feelings of comfort and discomfort simultaneously. Einstein noted that the mark of genius is the capability to rationally hold two diametrically opposed thoughts in one's head. From a musical view, great artists have illustrated this acumen as well: Beethoven wrote triumphant symphonies that belied his doomed life; Miles Davis, a restless soul who disliked much, blew the smoothest jazz; The Rolling Stones sang about dirty sex, set to the cleanest guitar riffs laid to tape. Mangum's juxtapositions mirror that masterful spirit, in the way that they engage and repel the listener, often at the same time. Listen to the striking beauty of "Communist Daughter," with its flugelhorn beaming through the foggy noise like a lighthouse, and take in the words "semen stains the mountaintops." Never has comfort felt so uncomfortable.

The trio of songs that deal most directly with Anne Frank are "Holland, 1945," "Oh Comely" and "Ghost." All three border on historic factuality, throwing around dates, numbers and other oblique references. Though she is never mentioned by name anywhere on the album, even a minor knowledge of the dark period in human history that Frank inhabited will tip things off. Add in some klezmer-esque passages, and Mangum's history lesson is complete. The moral of the story is less obvious, but the core is one of dreamlike time travel. If Mangum could just go back to save this girl he so longingly reaches out for, all would be right. It's a powerful twist on the concept of what we typically dream of, which are things in the future. Perhaps we can't put mind over matter; but at the end of the day, it is what's in our mind that matters.

In The Aeroplane Over The Sea's other central lyrical character is the elusive Two-Headed Boy, referenced in the title of the album's two strongest songs. It is within these two parts, separated by a half-dozen tracks, that Mangum's imagination turns most fierce. The lyrics are strange and sexual, his solo acoustics as urgent as it gets. "Two-Headed Boy" starts with determination, and only builds from there, Mangum singing at the top of his range, and a bit past it, holding vocal notes until he's out of breath, "and in the dark/ we will take off our clothes/ and they'll be placing fingers/ thru the notches in your spine." The song slowly peters out, to Mangum singing a minor key da-di-da. "Two-Headed Boy Part Two," which closes the album, picks up right where the first left off. Starting without a hint of fortitude, it chugs along, slowly building more beautiful and purposeful. The song carries on its shoulders all the weight of the prior ten, but is never defeatist. Rather, it - and Neutral Milk Hotel's recording career along with it - ends in perhaps the most poignant way imaginable: "when we break/ we'll wait for our miracle/ God is a place/ where some holy spectacle lies/ God is a place you will wait for the rest of your life/ two headed boy/ she is all you could need/ she will feed you tomatoes/ and radio wire/ and retire to sheets safe and clean/ but don't hate her/ when she gets up to leave." Those lines are followed by the echoed sound of Mangum unplugging his guitar and amp, nothing more to say or play.

The Two-Headed Boy may be a metaphor for Mangum himself, and for the omnipresent theme of wrestling with two opposing concepts. (Ergo, there is something quite disconcerting about the very image, set to the most uplifting music on the album). And so it comes full circle, to the fork that invariably occurs when this album is taken in. It is a bizarre musical masterpiece, one that bends and blends untraditional, largely folk-centric instruments with an urgent punk ethic. Other than On Avery Island, show me another album that incorporates a bowed fuzz bass, euphonium, singing saw, banjo, zanzithophone, various horns and shortwave radio. Although centered on Jeff Mangum, Neutral Milk Hotel was a full band, and the supporting musicians here, as well as on the debut, are outstanding.

Ultimately, In The Aeroplane Over The Sea is the crystallized vision of Jeff Mangum. By all accounts a reserved individual, through the album he let anyone who cared to listen in on a wild worldview, and it is a thrilling ride. Lest we forget this is music we're analyzing, the entire album is simply a joy, from end to end, and is one of a handful of records that remains fresh and exciting after hundreds of spins. I have always posited that Mangum sang this material as if his ship was going down, the urgency is that palpable. With ten years of hindsight, it appears there may be a truth to this, more unsettling than anything on this album, for Neutral Milk Hotel have not released anything since, and Mangum has all but disappeared from radar. Perhaps Aeroplane was always meant to be his musical epitaph, and if so, he left us a robust work of art that looms large a decade on, and seems to only become more monolithic with time.

Neutral Milk Hotel's legacy is cemented, and as their consistent sales through the years prove, hordes of fans are still discovering this seminal group. When I first heard In The Aeroplane Over The Sea crackling to life over a meager boombox, I sensed it was not a perfect album, but a perfect 10. True to form, there is irony in that very assessment, and it is the essence of what makes Neutral Milk Hotel so vibrant and vital. There is no such thing as a universal "perfection," it's the valiant quest that matters. And to that end, Aeroplane achieves. With its radio waves still brimming with life, the album remains a pinnacle, a brilliant artistic expression. Indeed, in its way, perfect.

SEE ALSO: www.neutralmilkhotel.net
SEE ALSO: www.neutralmilkhotel.org
SEE ALSO: www.mergerecords.com

--
Ari Shapiro
A staff writer for LAS, Ari Shapiro mixes up pretty unique smoothies at XOOM in hot Tucson.

See other articles by Ari Shapiro.

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