By Kevin Baxter
Artist: Neutral Milk Hotel
Album: In the Aeroplane Over the Sea
Released Date: Feb. 10, 1998
In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is a noisey, fuzzy masterpiece of an album. Released by Neutral Milk Hotel on Feb. 10, 1998, this album paved the way for many indie-folk and rock acts to come. With John Mangum’s forced-sounding vocals on top of a mixture of indie rock and lo-fi folk, with an emphasis on the fuzz pedal, Neutral Milk Hotel was able to virtually make a genre of their own. Still being one of the most popular albums of its type and of the decade, it is still celebrated among lovers of indie and folk rock.
Being the second in their catalogue, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is the most notable album released by experimental indie rock outfit, Neutral Milk Hotel. Not only for the amazing music held within the album but also because of how memorable the album art is. I first came across this album by seeing it as a meme on a music forum, later listening to it and immediately falling in love with it.
The lyrics on the album are mysterious and hard to break down. Much of the album seems to be about World War II, with Mangum stating “The Diary of Anne Frank” served as an inspiration for the album; reading it caused him to “completely flip out” and spend “about three days crying” in an interview with Mike McGonigal in the spring of 1998.
Along with that, there are references to many topics like Jesus, communism and two-headed boys; seeming to revolve around religion and sex. The lyrics on the album were once described by Jim DeRogatis, an American music critic and co-host of the talk show “Sound Opinions”, as bringing to mind “Dr. Seuss illustrating William S. Burroughs, or perhaps Sigmund Freud collaborating on lyrics with Syd Barrett.” This makes the album seem almost like an inkblot test where different people pick up on different images from the pattern.
Every time I listen to this album I am filled with a strange bittersweet melancholy. The melodies are lighter and pop-y but mixed with Mangum’s unique singing style, the result is unlike anything else. You can almost hear him straining for every note. Every song on this album is great but there are some I would specifically like to touch on.
The first two tracks on the album create a three part song under the title “King of Carrot Flowers”. “King of Carrot Flowers Pt. 1” introduces the album with Mangum’s vocals over an acoustic guitar, with the addition of more instruments as the song progresses. Lyrically, the narrator seems to be mentioning different anecdotes from somebody’s troubled upbringing; sometimes thought of as Mangum speaking to a step sibling or perhaps reliving his childhood from the perspective of a step sibling. Specific instances of youthful adventures, parents fighting and first love are all brought up. With the climax of the song following the telling of the mother’s alcoholism and father’s suicidal ideations.
Transitioning into “King of Carrot Flowers Pt. 2 & 3”, the music lowers until all that’s left is a guitar steadily being plucked over a quiet droning note. The vocals come back proclaiming love for “Jesus Christ”. On the second go around, the rest of the band begins to come in; creating a crescendo of anticipation resolving into the second half of this track: “King of Carrot Flowers Pt. 3”. The listener is quickly greeted with a fuzzy, fast paced, wall of sound made up of Mangum’s rugged vocals belting out optimistic lyrics over a gnarly instrumental in this indie rock gem. Each verse of part three includes a metaphor that involves persevering to turn a situation into your favor.
In 1998, Mangum commented on this in an interview with Phil McMullen, the founding editor of Ptolemic Terrascope, a psychedelic music magazine with a website straight from the ‘90s. Here he states that he “wrote that song for everybody to sort of say…everything’s going to be alright.” Adding that he writes most of his songs for friends: if he hears one is depressed, he writes them a song to make them feel better. Which is kind of sweet. Concluding the trilogy of the “King of Carrot Flowers” is a long droning note played in unison followed by a quick tap to wash the palate and bring in the next song.
“Holland, 1945” is definitely the catchiest song on the album and gives a great exhibition of the gritty guitar used much throughout the album. It’s tough to listen to this song without singing along, and while you do you’ll notice that Mangum doesn’t seem to take any breaths. During the long verses on this song it becomes difficult to follow along with his vocals. Bringing out a chaotic and fuzzy instrumental with Mangum’s style of singing, this is definitely my favorite song on the album.
In 1998, Neutral Milk Hotel created a masterpiece of an album that has not been sonically matched today. The unique writing and singing style of Magnum is one of a kind. Not long after the album was released, Neutral Milk Hotel disbanded and Mangum went on a long hiatus until he started playing live shows again around 2010.
In 2013, the band reunited and started touring again; however, in the Spring of 2015, with the announcement of their upcoming tour, the band posted that it would be their “last tour for the foreseeable future” on their website. On June 11, 2015, Neutral Milk Hotel played the final show of their final tour at The Phoenix Theater in Petaluma, California.