Review : Neutral Milk Hotel - In the Aeroplane Over the Sea
SputnikmusicThe very first time I heard In the Aeroplane Over the Sea I thought it was utter garbage. I remember I managed to get as far as “King of Carrot Flowers Parts 2 & 3” before throwing my hands up in confusion and exclaiming, “Fuck it!” So back up on the shelf it went after only the three minutes it took before Jeff Mangum screeched “I LOVE YOU JESUS CHRIST” at the top of his lungs. A short sample size, sure, but at that time my mind had been made up. I didn't get the hype. To be honest, to hell with just the hype, I didn't get it. That would come five years later. In the Aeroplane Over the Sea soon became nothing more than a memory of a failed travel into lo-fi music, something to scoff at in the few instances it was brought up in conversation, until a midnight drive with a couple of friends when by chance “Holland, 1945” ended up blasting out my car speakers. I still can't tell if it was because I actually enjoyed the song or if it was just because of who played it, but something clicked since not only did I remember the song but the moment as well. It still took a year from that moment to fully come to appreciate In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, but soon enough I came to see it for what it really was – perfect.
In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is the most human collection of songs I have ever come across. It embraces its shortcomings like no other and does it in such a characteristic fashion that all the things that first appeared as flaws; Mangum's strained and off key vocals, the fuzzy analog production, the somewhat odd fascination with the Holocaust's most famous teenage victim, and the seemingly endless well of sexual angst, all tie in to the human experience like no other. In under forty minutes Mangum masterfully cycles through love, faith, lust, anger and hate, in a way that is achingly relatable but uniquely his own. While other stylistic contemporaries like Elliott Smith and Conor Oberst were at their best when they narrated life like the poet laureates of the night before, on In the Aeroplane Over the Sea Jeff Mangum confronts his head on and trys to make something out of the madness of it all. The end result is a mess, but it is the most beautiful god damn mess I have ever heard....full text
PitchforkSo, 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, Loveless, OK 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 Sea, Puncture 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 releasing On 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....full text
AltmusicWhen it was released in 1998, even the most reverent Neutral Milk Hotel acolyte would've blushed at predicting the lingering legacy that Jeff Mangum's second NMH LP has gone on to have. It was hardly overlooked on release: many critics (including yours truly) lauded it for its sense of invention, for its forceful, personal drama, for its dread-inducing, distorted-to-hell bass, and for its memorable songwriting.
Yet, a decade hence, and In the Aeroplane Over the Sea has clearly transcended any initial critical reading. Having acts like the upstart Beirut and the world-conquering juggernaut the Arcade Fire willingly pillaging from the record's unending bag of tricks is one thing. The fact that it's become a perennially popular, infinitely influential entry in the alternative canon is another. But the real reason words suddenly struggle to do this disc justice is because time has clearly proven that this is one of those albums that seems to exist in its own otherworldliness, existing in its own timeless space.
You, The Living
The record is a rollicking set of fuzzy, brassy, open-hearted psychedelic pop that pulls influences from the lo-fi movement, the Beatles' experiments in the-studio-as-instrument, musique concrète tape-collages, Klezmer music, and, even, the cryptic imagery and hoarse-throated wails of Kurt Cobain's Unplugged confessions. It can sound like a joyous celebration of life at one moment, a baleful lament for the funereal march of life at another; an album that can bring both whimsy and tragedy to musical life with equal aplomb....full text
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