Twenty years ago, if you would have told critics that Neutral Milk Hotel’s sophomore effort would inspire a level of cult fanaticism few records have been capable of achieving, they would have answered with a resounding, “Who?”. Nevertheless, with its mixture of bizarre instrumentation, colorful arrangements, and abstract surrealist lyrics, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea has garnered an unmatched mystique, made even more enigmatic as the band vanished from the spotlight shortly after its release. This strange, obscure album boasted a unique collision of sounds (psychedelic rock, European folk, freeform jazz, 90s lo-fi rock) and utilized evocative, hyper-romantic poetic lyricism to marry an adolescent loss of innocence with the tragic tale of Anne Frank, creating something that was entirely unique.
Simply glimpsing the album’s vintage cover art transports the listener to another time, filled with calliope penny arcade imagery. With his strained vocals, creative force Jeff Mangum portrays the sort of anguish and building sadness that only come from raw desperation, straddling the blurred line between aggression and tenderness; it was absolutely necessary for him to get these songs out of himself. In his unfiltered sincerity, it is all too easy for the listener to get caught up in the album’s deceptive simplicity, as delicate acoustic melodies burst into thrilling, speedy waves of horns as the mood is tossed from tension to release and back again.
Greater than the sum of its parts, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea continues the fuzzy undertaking of On Avery Island, but it channels the tracks into a connected tapestry. This is a concept album that doesn’t follow one singular narrative. Rather, it is a series of thematically cohesive vignettes, so characters and circumstances change without warning, as if the listener were thrust into a kaleidoscopic dream. Still, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea demands to be consumed as a single entity, with each track serving as a chapter in this untiring novel.
The album opens with the short and emotionally raw “The King of Carrot Flowers, Pt. One,” an intimate look at a domestic dispute through the lens of an insulated childhood mind. As we follow the narrator’s transition from innocence to experience, we see a sexual awakening coupled with the harsh realities that often interrupt the fairytale love story, as curiosity is juxtaposed with violence. Mostly led by an acoustic guitar, the song is driven by Mangum’s wailing vocals as he screams his pain into the void, before ending with a static drone that bleeds into the story’s second chapter.
Following the ominous transition from the previous track, “The King of Carrot Flowers, Pts. Two & Three” is an introduction to the stranger, more twisted side of the album. This punky garage rocker is intent on making sure the listener is paying attention before diving into even darker themes. A gifted, if peculiar, singer, Jeff Mangum drags out the notes without a hint of theatricality or vibrato. While the lyrics might seem nonsensical at times, they clearly make sense in Mangum’s twisted mind. It’s easy to call some of his lines gibberish, but it is unimaginably difficult to string together a word salad like this with such a smooth, melodic flow.
Since 1998, this spooky title track has been one of the first tunes many beginners learn how to strum on their acoustic guitar. “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea” follows the same chord progression as “Earth Angel,” and yet it finds a sound that is entirely unique unto itself. Easily the most accessible, radio-friendly track on the record, the verses of the song learn how to accept fate, with the speaker realizing that he is only able to reunite with his kindred spirit after he has joined her in the afterlife. These ruminations on love and death are beautifully coupled with a haunting singing saw, that somehow feels naturalistic.
The first song on the album with a chorus, “Two-Headed Boy” opens with a simple guitar strum but one that’s unfathomably recognizable. Finding high energy with sparse orchestration, the track is stripped down, but it is propelled by a burning urgency. Within the cryptic, grotesque lyrics, Mangum explores the awkwardness of adolescent sexual discovery, while also rifling through the experiments the Nazis performed in the concentration camps. Often we find our purpose in death, as Anne Frank did, and leave survivors to “listen to hear where [we] are.”
A brassy, depressing instrumental track, “The Fool” plays like a funeral procession, calling to mind the horrors of war. This emotional interlude allows the listener to digest the weight of the previous track while shifting the atmosphere entirely. Scott Spillane is the album’s secret weapon, and this is his moment in the spotlight, with a trumpet-laden track he originally envisioned as the soundtrack to a student film.
In some circles, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is known as “that album about Anne Frank,” and while there are references to her woven in a thread throughout the record, she is normally made to be a supporting character. “Holland, 1945” brings her into the foreground. A furious, howling rocker, this track is the album’s centerpiece, and it refuses to let up. Using a mix of instrumentation, “Holland, 1945” builds a frantic wall of sound. It is driven by dark, mature thematic material, and yet the song is oddly one of the most approachable tracks in Neutral Milk Hotel’s bizarre catalog.
The short, repetitive “Communist Daughter” takes the album on a lovely, downbeat sidetrack. A precursor to Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, the track mainly pulls from a fuzzy acoustic guitar, with a perky horn part serving as bookends for the hushed verses. The nearly impenetrable narrative paints a portrait of vivid sexual imagery, keeping with the theme of teenagers discovering their changing bodies.
“Oh Comely” stems from Jeff Mangum’s longing to travel back in time and stop the horrors of the Holocaust. A nod to Bob Dylan, this melancholy, eight-minute riff is almost entirely composed of meandering, dense stream of conscious wordplay that often takes carnal lyrical turns. Mangum’s part was recorded in a single take, leading to a bandmate’s audible “Holy shit!” at the end of the track. The tonal climax of the record, “Oh Comely” showcases Mangum’s incredible lung capacity, making this a difficult song to sing along with.
Mangum was long plagued by night terrors and he believed his house was haunted by a spirit, which he addresses directly on “Ghost.” The band plug into a distorted, raucous sound with this track, building to an intense burst of energy. However, Mangum’s ghosts are not always literal, leading to his fascination with the permanence of a legacy: “I know that she will live forever / She won’t ever die.”
The following song, the second and final instrumental track on the record, wasn’t given a title. Serving as a brief palate cleanser, the song pulls from an eclectic collection of obscure instruments, notably the zanzithophone played by Laura Carter, which sounds like bagpipes from the depths of the underworld. The production is golden as this strange whirlwind of orchestration seamlessly bridges the gap between two tracks.
Opening with a ghastly echo, “Two-Headed Boy, Pt. Two” beautifully cements the album’s thesis, serving as the perfect capstone to the emotional journey. Lyrically, it makes references many of the other songs on the album, often verbatim. The album concludes with the line “Don’t hate her when she gets up to leave,” along with the sound of Mangum setting down his guitar and walking away, as he did with the project altogether. He had said all that he needed to say, and then had no idea how to follow up his statement.
Much like The Velvet Underground before them, Neutral Milk Hotel didn’t have an overwhelmingly vast fanbase during their initial run, but just about anyone who stumbled upon them during their tenure was inspired to write experimental songs around their own twisted dreams. A few years ago, Mangum and company reunited for a string of sold-out concerts, becoming a religious experience as crowds flocked to the feet of their messiah to belt out the words to these beloved songs. In the Aeroplane Over the Sea has taken on a mythological status in certain corners of pop culture, and its vibrant energy continues to bend and reach above the trees.