“The only girl I ever loved was born with roses in her eyes.”
Merge Records. 1998.
Starting with this entry on Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane over the Sea, about once a month I’ll be writing up my favorite albums and hopefully be able to include a couple of songs off of each.
The influential late 90s indie rock group Neutral Milk Hotel was the brainchild of Jeff Mangum, one of the original members of the Athens, Georgia Elephant 6 collective that includes members of The Apples in Stereo, The Olivia Tremor Control, and Of Montreal. Mangum was the singer and primary songwriter for the band, whose other members included his friends from other E6 bands. In 1996, NMH released On Avery Island, an uneven but interesting concept album that touched upon many of the themes later explored on the follow-up.
Two years later would come Mangum’s opus In The Aeroplane over the Sea, a brilliant and beautiful album influenced by his obsession with The Diary of Anne Frank and about coming to grips with mortality in the wake of her death and a failed relationship with his father. Mangum uses a lot of sexual and religious imagery to explore these themes and calls back to them throughout the entirety of the album. It is a true album rather than just a collection of songs, and it is at its best when listened to straight through. There are standout tracks but there isn’t a single weak track and the consistent musical and lyrical themes add up to a exceptional example of cohesive storytelling.
The album opens with the 3-part “The King of Carrot Flowers”, which showcases the different styles that Mangum employs on the album. Part 1 is a sparse, hauntingly beautiful tale of a dysfunctional childhood, part 2 an mournful ode to Jesus Christ and part 3 an almost punk-rock story of abortion, swimming and a synthetic flying machine. Next comes the title track, “In the Aeroplane over the Sea”, a song about life, death and Anne Frank, and one of the the best songs I’ve ever heard. At the close, Mangum seems to be addressing Anne, singing “When we meet on a cloud/I’ll be laughing out loud/I’ll be laughing with everyone I see/Can’t believe how strange it is/To be anything at all.”
He follows with the 1st part of “Two-Headed Boy” an ethereal song that seems autobiographical about a misfit who turns to radio and music to find the love he’s missing in his life. The album uses the instrumental “The Fool” to segue to the high-powered “Holland, 1945”, a love song for Anne Frank and another great song that shows the album’s musical versatility. Mangum sings with such emotion throughout the album that you can hear how much of himself he has put into the album. A lot of the songs feature heavy distortion and a lot of noise and background instruments, which contrasts well with Mangum’s distinct wail, and the faster songs like “Holland, 1945” and “Ghost” particularly make good use of this effect.
The short “Communist Daughter” leads into the 8-minute epic, “Oh Comely” that hits upon essentially every theme in the album. Another one of my favorites, “Ghost” follows, with another instrumental, “Untitled” bringing it to the album’s closer, the second part of “Two-Headed Boy”, which begins with Mangum pleading, “Daddy, please, hear this song that I sing.” It ends with him essentially telling himself (about Anne Frank) “But don’t hate her/When she gets up to leave.” The album ends with Mangum getting up and putting his guitar away, apropos given what he then did with his career.
In the ten years since the release of In the Aeroplane over the Sea, Mangum has practically walked away from recording or performing, save for a few guest appearances on friends’ albums and at their concerts, which only adds to his growing legend as another example of an artist who disappeared at the peak of his career. There are persistent rumors that Mangum will release another Neutral Milk Hotel album, and while that may destroy the romanticism of his image, I can only hope for more music from the mind behind In The Aeroplane over the Sea. It is a truly remarkable album and fully deserves its cult classic status.