25 Masterworks: Neutral Milk Hotel – In the Aeroplane Over the Sea

My Spin on Masterworks: 7 of 25

Neutral Milk Hotel

In the Aeroplane Over the Sea

Merge, 1998

Neutral Milk Hotel - In the Aeroplane Over the SeaLike so many others, I never thought I’d get to see Neutral Milk Hotel perform live. This year, I was so incredibly lucky that I got to see them twice: once at Camden Roundhouse on the day of my final university exam, and again during their Sunday night headline slot at Green Man Festival in Wales. The sound quality was much stronger the first time around, but on both occasions, the rapturous energy of the crowds and the sheer power of seeing the mythical indie heroes in the flesh elevated both gigs to quasi-spiritual experiences.

Seriously, it’s hard to imagine performances as earnestly-attended as Neutral Milk Hotel’s. At Green Man, a woman several feet away from me wept into her friend’s shoulder for the entirety of ‘Two-Headed Boy Pt. Two’. In the Roundhouse, somebody just behind me tried taking a photograph of the unfolding gig, and was instantly subjected to screams of disdain from everybody in his immediate vicinity. If there is any music icon whose requests for audio-visual privacy will be upheld, it’s Jeff Mangum. The following his band’s music has developed over the last quarter-decade borders on obsessive.

There is an aura to Neutral Milk Hotel: an aura that cannot be easily defined, but is recognised by every single listener who has ever been touched by the band’s music. There are the rumours and the backstories, of course, which have contributed to the group’s status. Yet by themselves, these tales would only be enough to make them a mere curiosity, rather than longstanding cult heroes. What truly matters is the weight of their music, and their second (and perhaps final) album is hallowed not only for its mystery.

In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is a peerless record. Every second vibrates with a terrible, indefinable importance, whether dispensed through the sonic turbulence of the music, or Mangum’s unforgettable lyrics. Mangum is a songwriter whose work demands the utmost attention of its listeners, dispelling any notions of music-as-background-noise as he chants “I love you Jesus Christ!”, or counts in the explosively fuzzy ruckus of ‘Holland, 1945’. His nasal, frequently strained voice is enchanting, vulnerable, but also frightening; the portents of a man haunted by visions, and possessed by an achingly sad knowledge of humanity’s darkest truths.

Juxtaposing his eulogies of the soul are the carnival-esque blasts of Neutral Milk Hotel’s tumultuous noise. It sounds triumphant, but it’s the kind of triumph that fits somewhere between a circus celebration and a funeral procession driven by hysteria. Scott

Neutral Milk Hotel (clockwise from top left: Julian Koster, Scott Spillane, Jeremy Barnes, Jeff Mangum).  (photo: allstonpudding.com)

Neutral Milk Hotel (clockwise from top left: Julian Koster, Scott Spillane, Jeremy Barnes, Jeff Mangum). (photo: allstonpudding.com)

Spillane’s horn arrangements can rouse dread just as easily as they can joy, and Julian Koster’s singing saws replicate ghosts wailing through the fabric of Mangum’s singing. Somehow the whole pageantry remains catchy and memorable throughout, the tumbling music coalescing into a perfectly-formed mass which defies clear contours.

Trying to unpick every riddle in the album is impossible. They slot together with a crazed logic which makes sense only because Mangum sounds so invested in – and transformed by – his subject matter. We believe his announcements make sense in some capacity, and there are threads of understanding that can be unravelled, but otherwise, we place our trust completely in his surreal, sometimes grotesque descriptions. All we can base our estimations in is that Mangum’s nuances always seem to return to the big headings of birth and death, and the splinters of beauty and tragedy that lie between both. Tellingly, the album’s title is taken from the following key lyric:

And one day we will die / And our ashes will fly / From the aeroplane over the sea

But for now we are young / Let us lay in the sun / And count every beautiful thing we can see.

Such lyrics are powerful on the page, but Mangum’s voice takes them further, raising them from beautiful to utterly indelible, his impassioned vocals able to transfix from the first note. And for all its jumbled wordplay, there’s no sense of anything being left unsaid on this album. The world it creates is complete and unyielding, leaving its listeners’ heads brimming with vivid portraits of scenes and feelings. Sitting down, tuning in and really listening to it is akin to examining a world within a snowglobe, forever preserved in its own sad, strange little bubble (perhaps not unlike the two-headed boy).

I don’t think I’ll ever be able to articulate all the things that I think and feel about In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. All I can do is keep listening, and keep trying to solve Mangum’s neverending mystery. I shake the snowglobe, and let the emotions and puzzles swirl around like lost ghosts. The answers linger just out of reach, but the unforgettable imagery makes these scenes feel alarmingly authentic, as if we have come close to finding some miraculous, terrible knowledge.

Everything contained within In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is real, because we find truth in it. We find truth, comfort, and sorrow in this landscape of grieving families, mountaintops stained with semen, and one particular girl who was born in a bottle rocket, and buried alive in 1945.

In the Aeroplane Over the Sea
1 – The King of Carrot Flowers Pt. One
2 – The King of Carrot Flowers Pts. Two & Three
3 – In the Aeroplane Over the Sea
4 – Two-Headed Boy
5 – The Fool
6 – Holland, 1945
7 – Communist Daughter
8 – Oh Comely
9 – Ghost
10 – The Penny Arcade in California
11 – Two-Headed Boy Pt. Two

Note: I’d like to thank Jess from So What Now? for featuring a link to my live review in her own wonderful article. The network of NMH fans professing their love for the group is always inspiring to read, and makes the band’s return feel like an experience shared between friends. Thanks!



Posted on August 30, 2014, in 25 Masterworks, The Music World and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Thanks for your link! I’m so glad you enjoyed the gig 🙂

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