On My Record Player Part 15

Neutral Milk Hotel – In The Aeroplane Over The Sea (1998)

I came across this music during early 2006 when I was working at the Olive Garden and I spent a lot of time on pitchforks website reading record reviews and I had to check out everything they gave perfect 10 out of 10 scores which is very rare. They are quite conservative. They are extremely rough on the mars volta which irritates me, but I can live with that. I got my first i-pod over ebay which was used, but it worked out for a year or so and I would download torrents like crazy, don’t tell the feds. Anyways after reading about NMH’s Aeroplane on pitchfork, I downloaded this album and it didn’t take much for me to really fall in love with this music. It is quite original in the sense that it has no concept of time or much influence from other music. It really is in its own universe. I just read however, that it falls into a category that was popular in the 80’s and 90’s amongst indie bands known as “lo-fi.” This gives a feeling of authenticity and intimacy that the artist wants to project to help you feel closer to the music, like you are the room with them playing for you. The subject for Aeroplane is really great. The primary songwriter, Jeff  Mangum chose to write and sing about Anne Frank who he felt deserved an artistic tribute to her legendary journey of communicating in a diary during the holocaust. Something amazing happens when certain people , such as Anne or Jeff, begin to write their thoughts and feelings down and it takes off and a life force is created within the writing that becomes a source of inspiration and lesson on humanity and nature that people need to learn about. I can imagine how Jeff was thinking one day, if I could go back in time and save one person’s life that deserved to go on, it would for sure be Anne Frank. She sure became a martyr of sorts, but the circumstances are just so depressing. It makes me really pray and wish there is a heaven or life after death for those who were such good, creative people that brought joy and hope to so many others while alive. The music is incredible, but I just get so caught up in the epic storytelling. Jeff’s vocals are so passionate and honest. I think the people that understand this album can hear how he was not trying impress anyone with these songs, it was just something he had to express in this way for himself and maybe to the spirit of Anne. He really is trying to reach out to her on this I think. There really isn’t much music like this I’ve ever heard before that is as honorable and full of raw feelings. There is really great use of horns on this album by Scott Spillane to creative a powerful spirit of liveliness. A true masterpiece to honor a beautiful spirit that left this world too soon.

I also have to add that this was the 6th best selling vinyl album of 2008.

Pitchfork – 10.0 out of 10

o, then, seven years later Domino reissues In the Aeroplane Over the Sea and the arguments can begin anew. I’ve talked about this album with a lot of people, including Pitchfork readers and music writers, and while it is loved in the indie world like few others, a small but still significant number despise it. Aeroplane doesn’t have the near-consensus of top-shelf 90s rock artifacts like, say, LovelessOK Computer, or Slanted and Enchanted. These records are varied, of course, different in many ways. But in one key respect Aeroplane stands apart: This album is not cool.

Shortly after the release of In the Aeroplane Over the SeaPuncture magazine had a cover story on Neutral Milk Hotel. In it Mangum told of the influence on the record of Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl. He explained that shortly after releasingOn Avery Island he read the book for the first time, and found himself completely overwhelmed with sadness and grief. Back in 1998 this admission made my jaw drop. What the hell? A guy in a rock band saying he was emotionally devastated by a book everyone else in America read for a middle-school assignment? I felt embarrassed for him at first, but then, the more I thought about it and the more I heard the record, I was awed. Mangum’s honesty on this point, translated directly to his music, turned out to be a source of great power.

In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is a personal album but not in the way you expect. It’s not biography. It’s a record of images, associations, and threads; no single word describes it so well as the beautiful and overused “kaleidoscope.” It has the cracked logic of a dream, beginning with “King of Carrot Flowers Part 1”. The easiest song on the record to like on first listen, it quietly introduces the listener to the to the album’s world, Mangum singing in a muted voice closer to where he left off with the more restrained On Avery Island (through most of Aeroplane he sounds like he’s running out of time and struggling to get everything said). The first four words are so important: “When you were young…” Like every perceptive artist trafficking in memory, Mangum knows dark surrealism to be the language of childhood. At a certain age the leap from kitchen utensils jammed into dad’s shoulder to feet encircled by holy rattlesnakes is nothing. A cock of the head; a squint, maybe.

Inside this dream it all begins in the body. Moments of trauma, joy, shame– here they’re all experienced first as physical sensation. A flash of awkward intimacy is recalled as “now how I remember you/ how I would push my fingers through your mouth/ to make those muscles move.” Sometimes I hear this line and chuckle. I think of Steve Martin in The Jerk, licking Bernadette Peters’ entire face as a sign of affection. Mangum here reflects the age when biological drives outpace the knowledge of what to do with them, a time you’re seeing sex in everything (“semen stains the mountaintops”) or that sex can be awkward and unintentionally painful (“fingers in the notches of your spine” is not what one usually hopes for in the dark). Obsessed as it is with the textures of the flesh and the physical self as an emotional antenna, listening to Aeroplane sometimes seems to involve more than just your ears.

Then there’s the record’s disorienting relationship to time. The instrumentation seems plucked randomly from different years in the 20th century: singing saws, Salvation Army horn arrangements, banjo, accordion, pipes. Lyrical references to technology are hard to fix. Anne Frank’s lifespan from 1929 to 1945 is perhaps the record’s historical center, but the perspective jumps back and forth over centuries, with images and figures sucked from their own age and squirted out somewhere else. When “The King of Carrot Flowers Part 3” mentions “a synthetic flying machine” our minds leap to something like Leonardo da Vinci’s 15th Century drawings of his helicopter prototype. The image in “Two-Headed Boy” of a mutant child trapped in a jar of formaldehyde is pulled from Dr. Moreau’s industrial age island. The radio play powered by pre-electric pulleys and weights, the nuclear holocaust in the title track. What’s it all about? Mangum offers an explanation for these jarring leaps in a line about Anne Frank in “Oh Comely,” where he sings, “I know they buried her body with others/ her sister and mother and 500 families/ and will she remember me 50 years later/ I wished I could save her in some sort of time machine.” If you can move through time, see, nothing ever really dies.

Seven years it’s been, and whether Mangum has had personal trouble or somehow lost his way with music, it’s not unreasonable to think that we’ve heard the last from Neutral Milk Hotel. I hope he does, but he may never pick up the guitar he set down after “Two-Headed Boy Part Two.” Even so, we have this album and another very good one, and that to me is serious riches. Amazing to think how it started, how at the core of it all was guts. I keep thinking of “It’s Alright Ma, I’m Only Bleeding,” and one of Dylan’s truest lines: “If my thought-dreams could be seen/ They’d probably put my head in a guillotine.” Aeroplane is what happens when you have that knowledge and still take the risk.

— Mark Richardson, September 26, 2005

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