Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane over the Sea turns 10, officially the best album in the last 10 years: a personal essay

Neutral Milk Hotel’s (wikipedia) 2nd and final album, In the Aeroplane over the Sea was released on February 10, 1998 making it 10 years old as of today. I can now officially say it’s the best album in those ten years and that it’s probably my most personally significant single album.

[I’m not the only one who noticed the anniversary, but I will note I started this post about a week before the ‘gum post was up.]

At just under forty minutes, eleven tracks and between seven and thirteen songs (depending on what you want to count) and consisting of psychedelic fuzz pop, one wouldn’t think it is the epic and meaningful album that it is. But it is epic and for me it has been extraordinarily meaningful and important.

It has been written about eloquently (by Will Sheff, of Okkervil River, no less) and with (mounting) and glowing praise, probably better than I can do it, but I can write something about its effect on me personally.

In late February 1998, Superchunk played at the Graffiti in Pittsburgh. I’d been listening to that band, Seam, Sebadoh, Coctails, Moxy Fruvous and a bunch of oldies music. I seriously considered going but passed. My friend Colin, who was a few years ahead of me and was in college at the time ended up going to the show. A few weeks later he was back in the neighborhood for spring break and my high school band had a rehearsal; Colin drummed for us some of the time. I don’t remember actually practicing that day, but I remember Colin putting on an album by the band that opened for Superchunk and regaling us of stories of bowed banjos, guitars with pickups taped onto them, trumpets, broken cymbals, concertinas and all sorts of musical odds and ends this crazy band played.

Initially I was not 100% convinced by what I heard–it was just so different from what I was listening to and that voice was not traditionally “good”–but I bought the album within a couple weeks and I could have been described as a hardcore fan in less than two months. I know it was that amount of time because at the end of May that year I bought an accordion so I could play the accordion parts of “King of Carrot Flowers” with my high school band.

Since that time, I’ve bought and learned instruments (the accordion and others) to play songs from that album, played it on my radio show in pieces many times and in its entirety (at least four times), bought it for people as gifts who showed the mildest interest, said “you’ve gotta hear this!” more times than I can remember, argued with people who didn’t like it, read every review and interview I could find, bought all the available previous releases, bought albums by obscure (and sometimes bad) marginally-relates side projects; listened to bootlegs and demos and anything else I could get my hands on. I’ve been buoyed by it; I’ve been pulled down into deep emotional places; I’ve been entranced; I’ve had nostalgia while listening to it and I’ve had my thoughts pushed to the future; I’ve read books about it. I have friends because of it and I’ve had a crush on a girl because she liked it.

This album isn’t for everyone, I’ve learned. Because there’s such an emotional response to this music, it’s hard to justify liking it or not liking it. I mean, I can describe why I like it (as I’m sure people who don’t like it can do with their point of view), but describing why I love it, why it’s tremendously meaningful to me is not something that’s very easy. I can try to do that, though. It’s not one thing, but a combination of many things: the surrealist lyrics with their evocative imagery; the way the lyrics fall on the melodies, especially those lines like “how strange it is to be anyone at all” or “God is a place you will wait for the rest of your life” which land perfectly in the melody. The sheer earnestness of the singing is something that makes it more meaningful; when I hear Jeff’s singing, I feel there’s nothing that he believes more than the words he singing that very moment. There’s the amazing production by Robert Schneider, combining fuzzed, noisy, pop, folk and many other elements into something that fits together amazingly well, somehow. I love all the weird instruments; I’ve been a weird instrument nerd for most of my musical life. Long after the first listens, the story and obsession with Anne Frank gave the album more depth.

I gave the album another few listens and wrote down thoughts as it played.

King of Carrot Flowers Pt. One

Such a simple way to open the album, you know? But it goes right to the surreal imagery that gives this album so much depth.

We used to cover this song in my high school band. I’ve since come around to a no-NMH covers position. It seems like every cover I heard of songs from this album butchers the it. No one can do it right.

It seems everyone likes this album these days[1], but that wasn’t always the case. There was a time when it was fairly rare to find someone outside of my circle of friends (most of whom I’m turned onto it) who liked In the Aeroplane. I was a sophomore in college when Jesse moved into the house I was living in. We talked occasionally and he was a nice guy but we weren’t very close. One time he was talking to me about something unrelated and I saw that he had In the Aeroplane (and On Avery Island) in his CD rack. I interrupted him: “Oh my gosh! You like Neutral Milk Hotel?” We’re still close friends today.

King of Carrot Flowers Pt. Two and Three

This is the song that I imagine people either turn toward or away from the album. Whereas “Pt 1″ had a subdued voice and fairly common orchestration, this has Jeff singing in full nasally glory, a build up of noise and feedback sounds. And that subject matter. I was very Christian when I first heard this album and I didn’t really know what to make of it: either it was the most openly Christian song of all time or it was deeply ironic, I thought. Turns out its neither, as noted in the liner notes: it’s about Jeff loving JC the person and it’s not a particularly spiritual song.

In the Aeroplane over the Sea

Another song I used to play with my high school band.

“How strange it is to be anything at all”. This line hit me so hard the first time I heard it and most times since. As I go through life, my ideas about that line and reactions to it change but it still hits me hard. This was also my email signature for about 3 or 4 years.

Two-headed Boy

This actually took me a long time to love this song. It’s so driving and rough. There’s no room for warm and happy floating-along listening here (like there is in the title track). But there’s something stark and beautiful about it. It’s a good transition from the first part of the album to the second part.

Fool

My musical life was brass instruments when I first heard this, in a time when such things weren’t as common in indie rock, before the Sufjans of this world stepped onto the musical stage, so, of course, this made me love this album even more.

I was at a party a few years ago and heard from a mutual friend that this girl, Elissa, liked the album. I went over and talked to her about it and after a couple hours of talking about it, other music and a variety of other topics, I went home with a hardcore crush on her. It was, you know, high school-style, where all your friends are sick of you talking about her and your hands get clammy when you even think about her. It turned out she had some long distance boyfriend, but we went to some shows and I made her mixtapes (of course) anyway.

Holland, 1945

“Two. One two three four”.

As I mentioned, I missed my chance to see NMH. You probably did too, but there’s always youtube. It took some time to get over missing my chance to see the band, but I’ve gotten past that. I have, however, seen all the “members” of Neutral Milk Hotel in other Elephant 6 bands. Jeff Mangum played with Circulatory System on a short tour in 2001. Scott Spillane and Julian Koster played with Olivia Tremor Control back in 1999. Jeremy Barnes played with Bablicon when I saw them in 1999. (He also played with A Hawk and a Hacksaw but I missed them when they were touring with Beirut). I’ve even see Robert Schneider (many times, with the Apples in stereo) and Laura Carter (a few times, with Elf Power). I realize this is not much of an accomplishment and not much of a substitute for missing the band.

Communist Daughter

It really is the most extreme variety of that album idea for me. What I mean: it is so much greater than the sum of its parts that most times I won’t even put it on if I’m not going to sit down and listen to the album all the way through. For a few years now I’ve been reluctant to play it on my radio show unless I can somehow play the whole thing. There are great songs, but the overall effect of those eleven tracks is transcendent and amazing.

These days there aren’t many albums and even when artists produce records that are more than a collection of songs, people pull them onto their ipods and listen to them in chunks or on shuffle. This album really demands listening to as a whole, or at least large chunks, for no other reason than the songs run together. I’m not sure if I would have the same reaction today with In the Aeroplane. Would I give it a chance to grow on me? Would I be patient enough to listen to it as an album rather than just chunks of a couple songs here and there? I hope I would.

Oh, Comely

I remember the first time that I read someone pointing out that someone in the studio yells “Holy shit!” at the end of the recording and how it changed this song for me. I had to go back and listen to it again. It became more real, rawer, more amazing. I later read in Kim Cooper’s book that the guitar and vocals was done in one take–that’s what I instinctively knew and felt once I read about that studio observer’s exclamation.

Ghost

Somehow the album manages to pick up after the epic last notes of “Oh Comely” without devaluing what we just heard. Things like this is what make this an album rather than a collection of songs.

10

Perhaps the most concrete–non-emotional, non-social–consequence of In the Aeroplane over the Sea is all the other music it got me into. The Elephant 6 bands are probably the most obvious of these; after Neutral Milk Hotel, I also got into the Apples in stereo, Olivia Tremor Control, Elf Power, Beulah, the Minders, etc. I got into the things that these bands were referencing, like the Beach Boys. My music landscape was opened up to bands that included similar experimental pop/ found sound elements that the E6 bands had. NMH also opened me up to the idea that near-perfect music didn’t have to have near-perfect elements; In the Aeroplane had a singer with an untraditional vocal tone; there were out of tune notes, flubs, and uncommon instruments played sometimes in a pretty mediocre way, but the whole that came out of these parts transcended those imperfections.

Two-headed Boy, Pt Two

This song just kills me. It’s got an amazing and mournful melody. There are really two points that do it, though: “In my dreams my dreams you’re alive and crying”–this always reminded me of my grandpa who died with the last thing he had said to me being scolding me for interrupting him during a toast for my dad’s birthday–and when he finishes the song, puts down his guitar and walks off. The fact that it also acts as a reprise of the earlier song helps tie together the whole thing.

I was having a hard time earlier coming up with why this album is meaningful to me, but now I’m beginning to see it: the music is one part, albeit a large part, but there so many other memories, connections, and relationships that this album is a part of. Jeff Mangum has no idea who I am and didn’t write anything with me in mind, but managed to write an album that connected to me in a multitude of ways. I’m not sure if there’s any better definition of a great album.

[1] Perhaps, it’s just that everyone I know likes it. If that’s the case, is it a coincidence or cause-and-effect? If the latter, which is the cause and which is the effect?



4 Responses to “Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane over the Sea turns 10, officially the best album in the last 10 years: a personal essay”

  1. libs says:

    I completely agree, that is the definition of a great album. It acknowledges the subjectivity of judging “greatness.” Or perhaps the collective definition of great is an album that connects to the greatest number of people? However, the trouble with that is that there is no way to measure either the number of people who listen to the album, nor can we measure the depth of the connection, i.e. _how_ much do you love this album.

    I have albums that are great to me because I feel deeply connected to each and every song. I have a long term relationship with the albums. But I know that they may not appeal to everyone. There are also albums in my collection that I like a lot, and I recognize that they are more accessible to a greater number of people, thus making them what I would be more likely to consider, “great.”

    For example, I listened to Ani DiFranco’s Imperfectly at least 4 times this weekend. I first heard it over 10 years ago (it came out 15 years ago.) The songs on that album recall more than a decade’s worth of my life, and each major event is tied to the lilts and lyrics of specific songs. Of course Ani doesn’t know that. Also, I would not presume that it is an album that would speak to many people. It is great to me, but perhaps not “Great” great.

    On the other hand, The Notwist’s Neon Golden… not so much. I like the album. I listen to it. I know that it is on many “great” lists. I can see why. But it just is not that moving for me. I also don’t tend to think of it as super accessible.

    Now, Brian Wilson’s Smile is an album that I know is popular, and again, I like it. I think of it as an accessible album. I know that it is a life-changing albums for some. I know that it is good, great in fact, but I do not have a significant connection to it. It would not make my personal “great” list.

    Anyway, now I am just rambling. The point is, I like your write-up about NMH In the Aeroplane over the Sea, and your analysis of what makes an album great.

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