Dedicated to my friend Brandon, because this is his favorite album.
Every once in a while, the clouds part and a beam of brilliance shines down from up above. Sometime around 1996, one of these beams decided to rest upon the shaggy haired head of Jeff Mangum, leader of Louisiana based lo-fi band Neutral Milk Hotel. Neutral Milk Hotel had just released their debut album, On Avery Island. On Avery Island was a good start, but it wasn’t quite a classic. then, something began to change for Jeff Mangum. He started to have night terrors and dream of a little German girl named Anne Frank. Mangum took these experiences and used them to write what would become his opus. He wrote all new songs, cobbled together an all new group of musicians, and recorded an album that was to be titled In The Aeroplane Over The Sea. It is one of the greatest albums ever recorded. Aeroplane is a raw burst of emotion that has rarely been matched.
The album starts out with King of Carrot Flowers Part 1. It crafts what is to be the overall sonic template for the LP. A mixture of acoustic guitar strums, lots of background fuzz, and vague, often oblique lyrics that occasionally make perfect sense. King of Carrot Flowers Part 2 & 3. has an infamous opening, with Mangum bleating “I LOVE YOU JEEEESUS CHRISTTTTTT! JESUS CHRIST I LOVE YOU, YES I DOOOOOO!” Don’t get the impression that this is gospel, the song bursts into gigantic waves of distortion while Jeff talks about nothing and everything. The title track seems to be a lighter affair at first, but repeated listens reveal that it is, in fact, darker than both parts of Carrot Flowers. The lyrics deal with death and what is to come after that. It’s dark, but it’s not bleak. The song offers something of a hopeful note by the end of it. Next comes one of two epics on the album, Two-Headed Boy. Its…. well, its a classic. The lyrics, the rapid-paced guitar strums, even Mangum’s polarizing singing, it’s all great. Two-Headed Boy leads into The fool, an instrumental interlude. After that brief track, we come to the key song of the album. It’s name is Holland, 1945 and it’s my favorite song of the 1990s. It’s lyrics, while surreal, are the codifier for understanding what Mangum’s intentions for the album were. He wanted to dispel his dreams and night terrors, so he invents a fantasy of him going back and saving Anne Frank. This song segues right into the song Communist Daughter, which is a little portrait of Anne Frank, the girl Mangum so loves.
The next track is the other epic of the album: Oh Comely. It’s an eight-minute ramble of a song and I’ve heard it be compared to Bob Dylan’s Desolation Row. That’s not a bad comparison as both have foreboding lengths, both are primarily acoustic, and the lyrics to both are all over the place and read like an exceptionally vivid travel log through a dream. Oh Comely is a bit more personal and Desolation Row is a bit more poetic. Desolation Row also happens to be my favorite song, but I’ll talk more about that when I review Highway 61 Revisited. Ghost/Untitled comes after Oh Comely. The Ghost half of the song is the most distortion-reliant track since Carrot Flowers 2 & 3. It makes me think of gray days and 1940′s skyscrapers. Untitled is an instrumental piece, but unlike The Fool, it’s no interlude. It is a vibrant and buoyant number that can make one feel as if they are floating. It also sets the stage for the final song on the album: Two-Headed Boy Part 2. It is the perfect end for this album. After a good minute or so of feedback, Jeff Mangum’s cracked voice, sounding more desperate than ever comes in. He is pleading for love and companionship and describes God as a place where a holy spectacle lies in wait for them. Then near the very end of the song, he does get the companionship and reconciliation he so wants, and you think that it’s over. Just as you’ve relaxed and have started to get a good feeling in your stomach, the bomb drops. Mangum leaves you with these words:
“She is all you could need,
She will feed you tomatoes and radio wires, and retire to sheets warm and clean….. but don’t hate her, when she gets up, to leave.”