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Monday, March 11, 2019

Neutral Milk Hotel: In The Aeroplane Over The Sea


1) The King Of Carrot Flowers, Part 1; 2) The King Of Carrot Flowers, Parts 2 & 3; 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) Untitled; 11) Two-Headed Boy, Part 2.

General verdict: Introducing St. Anne Frank as the Holy Protectress of all vocally challenged indie kids.

[Note: This is a slightly revised and restructured version of an older review that originally appeared in the short-lived Important Albums series.]

For all the solid memories that this album left behind it, there is not a whole lot of significant background to its appearance. In 1998, the world sure as hell was not expecting to be taken by storm by a slightly non-conventional singer-songwriter, armed largely with just an acoustic guitar and a bunch of his trumpet-blowing friends — the taste-based, creatively demanding part of that world was getting accustomed to living in the age of King Yorke and Queen Björk, and the indie kids, I suppose, were mostly happy that the massive «underground sellout wave» of the early 1990s, spearheaded by Nirvana, was finally over and they could now have their new basement idols all to themselves, to be shared and admired in small insider circles. That seemed largely to be the deal with the Elephant 6 bands — largely due to the self-conscious «archaicness» of their sound, as well as an intentional lack of excessive promotion, their fanbase was never too huge, but it was loyal, and critics tended to respect them, too.

Nevertheless, out of all the impressive musical baggage that the Elephants had accumulated over more than two decades of existence, not a single piece of product earned as much retrospective admiration as Neutral Milk Hotelʼs second and last record. Its rise to fame did not occur until sometime around the mid-2000s, by which time it began to be proclaimed as not only the best Elephant 6 album ever made, but one of the best albums of the 1990s and, eventually, one of the best albums ever (and I have even seen with my own eyes written fan claims to it being the best album ever, period). Consequently, it might make more sense to discuss not the background of the record itself (which is largely a personal matter of Jeff Mangumʼs), but the reasons why it took so long for it to break out of the cult classic status into a much more mainstream conscience;  and, indeed, when you confront it with the indie rock scene of the 2000s, everything from Arcade Fire to Beirut and beyond, it is possible to see how it was really somewhat ahead of its time in 1998, and how it would better appeal to an early 21st century conscience than a late 20th century one. But read on to find out.

Almost symbolically, In The Aeroplane Over The Sea was recorded at the Pet Sounds Studio in Denver, Colorado, installed there by Robert Schneider — who also continued to serve as producer for these sessions, which took place in the summer of 1997. Although Neutral Milk Hotel had previously been just cover-up name for Mangum, at this particular stage the «band» was officially expanded to include Julian Koster on keyboards, Scott Spillane on brass and woodwinds, and Jeremy Barnes on drums, with all three musicians playing a very significant part and largely responsible for the majority of stylistic changes from On Avery Island. (Several additional musicians are also credited, including Schneider himself on piano and organ, Michelle Anderson on bagpipes, and Laura Carter on a wonderful instrument called the Zanzithophone — I mean, surely you do not expect a band called Neutral Milk Hotel to exist and not to use the Zanzithophone? Itʼs a phonetic match made in Heaven!)
That said, a huge chunk of the album does consist of nothing but Mangum and his acoustic guitar, which is why the «singer-songwriter» moniker can still safely stick around — the bombastic arrangements tend to be secondary compared to the sparsely arranged parts, and the music is largely taking orders from Mangumʼs poetic and artistic vision, rather than vice versa: a vision that was largely inspired by the manʼs immersion into The Diary Of Anne Frank, even if his own reaction to it, as could be expected, was seriously different from the average laymanʼs perspective. Nor is it unexpected that Mangum would disband Neutral Milk Hotel the very same year that the album was released: a perfectly natural move for a certified loner/maverick who feels much better on his own than surrounded by bandmates. The fact that he has made very few public appearances or released any new music ever since only confirms the mystery (and makes him an even tastier object of admiration for the wound-up hipster in need of a holographic companion with a permanently broken heart).

Naturally, the album did not sell much upon its original release; today, however, Billboard charts mark more than 140,000 copies sold as compared to but a measly 5,000 for the recordʼs less fortunate predecessor, and — perhaps not surprisingly — most of these copies seem to be vinyl ones rather than CDs: cool works of art like these should be owned on something more classy (and long-lasting) than a cheap laserdisc. (For even better effect, I do believe that the vinyl LP should be sold in a twin package with a bottle of Domaine De LʼEcu Muscadet — double the charm in an unforgettable mix of pleasure and misery!). Likewise, the amount of panegyrical reviews on professional and amateur websites has been increasing in geometric progression for the past 10 years, pretty much burying the entire Elephant 6 scene under them: poor Robert Schneider (a very cool and talented musician himself) only wishes, I guess, that he could have at least a dozenth part of those accolades, and by now it seems that his case is pretty hopeless. Let us try and see why that is for ourselves.

First things first: it is useless for me to try and pretend to be an admirer of this album — for the most part, its charm fails to work on me, and without that magic touch, its flaws vastly outnumber its virtues, or, at least, are so serious as to throttle its chances of being counted as a masterpiece, let alone «the greatest album ever made». But still, virtues first, and the first virtue of In The Aeroplane Over The Sea is this: IMHO (which stands for «in my honest opinion»), Jeff Mangum is anything but a poseur. And, yes, that is an important point. Any dickhead (excuse me) can pick up an acoustic guitar, glue some generic chords together, write some bad poetry, and pretend to be making us all a generous donation of the unique, insightful vibes of his unique, insightful personality. Some of these dickheads might even be lucky to grab a recording contract, and a few are luckier still to get airplay and publicity — and this almost automatically guarantees some sort of fanbase, because people are plenty and people are strange. (Then thereʼs truly magical stuff, like the combination of a dickhead, a beard, and a secluded log cabin... oh, do not get me started). Well, to cut to the chase, I am certainly not Jeff Mangumʼs biggest fan, but he ainʼt a dickhead — ʽEverything Isʼ had already shown us that he has got some talent to burn, and he is not burning it in a conventional, mass-marketed furnace, which usually comes along with the instruction «whine and bleed and mix tears and blood and write IʼM SO VULNERABLE with them on your sleeve» (the recordʼs, that is). He is definitely a more intriguing figure than that.

I am also not going to pretend that I «understand» any of the manʼs intriguing lyrics, or even properly «get» whatever it is for which he is using Anne Frank as a symbol (because, if anything, In The Aeroplane is not a Holocaust tribute, not even a thickly veiled one). I do not think they matter nearly as much as the majority of the albumʼs printed or web-published descriptions would have you believe — in fact, I do not even think that there are any specific «key lines» here, like there are in Dylan songs, to act as primary stimulants, and I do believe it is pointless to make wild guesses about why the boy is two-headed, or why "semen stains the mountain tops" (this seems to be the most commonly debated and discussed line in the whole album, BECAUSE GROSS GROSS GROSS) and what precisely this has to do with the communistʼs daughter. What matters is that he sings it as if it all made sense — with intonations that alternately suggest blunt peasant admiration of some heavenly beauty, unmotivated outbursts of passionate village idiocy ("Jesus Christ I love you" is a prime example — not the words, of course, but the way they are delivered), insistent, tense pleading (the entire ʻOh Comelyʼ is one large tearing plea), and an odd brand of sermonizing, as when you get chased in the street by some crazyass sect member who does not even speak your language too well, but he knows he just got to make you understand, or his soul will be forfeit.

Roughly speaking, this is a sincere album, communicated to us in its own tongue that makes as little sense verbally as it does musically. From a musical standpoint, the one thing that stands out about Aeroplane is its odd stylistic melange — at its heart lie some very simple, very repetitive acoustic guitar patterns, and if the only thing to disrupt them were the occasional breaking out of thick distorted power-pop electric guitar, that would be comprehensible; but much of the time, the music is accompanied with zydeco accordeons, the already familiar New Orleanian brass (the guy was born in Louisiana, after all, remember?), various old-fashioned organ overdubs, and all sorts of disconcerting, disorienting sound effects that give the feel of a hot, damp, lazy afternoon, teaming with organic life but no sense of direction or purpose whatsoever. No wonder that the individual songs are rarely memorable, and the entire record runs on atmosphere/feel rather than actual melodic hooks. Although, admittedly, I would not be so honest if I said the record is completely devoid of them: ʻHolland, 1945ʼ is as good a folk-pop song as any, and would have sounded great on any country-western album with a banjo on my knee. It is certainly the merriest song about Anne Frank ever written, that is for sure, and is bound to send her spirit pirouetting in the sky. (Actually, here is a great idea for an aspiring filmwriter: how about a script where Jeff Mangum dies from a broken heart and goes to Heaven and actually finds Anne Frank and plays her In The Aeroplane Over The Sea and... and...?..)

Anyway, it is pretty easy to see why the record was singled out of the entire Elephant 6 backlog: it obviously makes an effort to suck you inside this guyʼs personality, offering you a certain spiritual vibe to adopt for your own purposes, and it is quite intimate — unlike any track by, say, Apples In Stereo, many of which are musically superior but never convey the impression of «coming straight from the guts». It is more of a singer-songwriter album than a psychedelic pop album, and yet, at the same time, it has enough elements of psychedelic pop to make it superficially more attractive than the average folkie confessional. And although Mangum still comes across as way too normal to truly qualify as «1990ʼs Syd Barrett», there is a definite echo of Syd in him — the aura of childishness, the ability to move from happiness to depression in a twinkle, and that passionate, unquenchable desire to tell you something, make you understand at all costs, even if it is practically hopeless because we do not really speak the same language. And he does that without being too gloomy, like Elliott Smith, or too romantically distant, like Jeff Buckley. I mean, you could probably have this guy as your friend, even if youʼd probably have to keep an eye on him lest he burn down the kitchen or something. Right?

But here come the problems. Let us pick at a single song for starters: to my ears, ʻOh Comelyʼ sounds plain unbearable. Six minutes of musically trivial acoustic strum, accompanied with sincere, but sonically brutal singing from a guy who — let us put it mildly — was not born and reared for this kind of singing; good old Keith Richards couldnʼt have done a worse job than what Mangum does here, especially when he tries to go real high at the end of each verse. Honestly, I do not know about you, but to me, this is plain sonic torture, and I have no idea why I should be enduring it, or why I should respect this awful off-key vocal racket as a symbolic representation of sincere, unadorned suffering. (And I do not even have a proper idea of what he is suffering about — is it horror at Anneʼs fate? or desperation at the fact that she is there and he is here and she canʼt "let her skin begin to blend itself with mine"?).

The thing is, I am as much of a sucker for sincerity and originality as anyone, and I heartily welcome unconventional approaches to singing and playing (I do love Björk, remember?), but the problem with Aeroplane is that its approach is not «unconventional» — it is simply un-existing. There are no special instrumental or vocal techniques that Mangum is cherishing, he simply plays and sings it as it is, to the best of his knowledge and skill, and, well, his best is just not good enough. Most of the instrumental guitar melodies here could be played by a kid after several months of training in folk music, and most of the vocal melodies could be nice if they were sung by somebody who actually bothered just a bit. (And let us not even start on people like Dylan or Tom Waits, who could sing and did it with gusto, unconventional as their approaches were). Worst of all is the inadequacy — if you canʼt, donʼt, but he still does. I do believe that if only these songs were delivered in a more quiet manner, without the man trying to set off a nuclear chain reaction with his vocal cords, they would have produced a more positive impact (in fact, when he is quiet, his voice can even be pretty: the "what a beautiful face I have found in this place..." start to the title track is one of the albumʼs loveliest moments). As it is, he just ruins his own sincere image with this pushing-too-hard trick. Of course, it is not much of a problem if you are tonedeaf (which seems to be quite a regular case with indie kids... okay, never mind), but what about the rest of us?..

Another thing that seriously bugs me is that the sincerity and artistic vision of Mangum is way undercut by the superficial trappings of «cool». Whatʼs up with all those song titles? What do carrot flowers have to do with Anne Frank? For that matter, what has Anne Frank to do with anything, and isnʼt he confusing her with Alice in Wonderland? Why does the lady on the album cover have no face? Why are we supposed to believe that quasi-New Orleanian big band instrumentation provides the perfect interludes between primitive acoustic folk patterns? Where, for that matter, does the artistʼs sincerity end, and at which particular point is it replaced by «empty cool»? Every time I want to trust this guy and empathize with him, he offsets me with some bit of nonsense or other, and, honestly, I just do not have the time or wish to go over that nonsense and interpret it as symbolic wisdom (thereʼs tons of text written on that by amateur admirers over the Web, with hundreds of interpretations that all contradict each other and are just about equally worthless).

Finally, a truly great album is supposed to be irreplaceable within a niche of its own; but at least in purely musical terms, the albumʼs mix of street folk, jazz, and big brass arrangements has certainly been one-upped since by Beirut — and, for that matter, Zach Condon as a romantic loner is hardly that less intriguing than Jeff Mangum, although he is clearly quite the better musician and singer, which is probably why he does not get nearly as much veneration as Neutral Milk Hotel (nor does he torture his voice to generic acoustic guitar patterns). In other words, I just fail to get the exclusiveness of this proposition. Outstanding melodies? No dice (if thereʼs any catchiness here, it is mainly because Mangum has done some folksy homework and seems to be heavily pilfering from folk and country-western). Unique arrangements? Somewhat, but not that unique any more. Haunting vocal tones? You bet — haunting enough to lead one to an early grave. Mind-blowing concept? Couldnʼt really say, and there is something pretty disturbing about the way he slobbers over Anne Frank, to tell the truth. So is there anything left?.. Well, technically, yes, but certainly not enough for me to regard this album as much more than a curiosity, with occasional shots of loveliness scattered across a sea of failures. 

I do know for a fact that many people sincerely love this record, and there is certainly no harm in that (at least, it is definitely less offensive than late period Aerosmith), but it does worry me a little, because the albumʼs musical backbone is really thin, and if its meteoric rise to popularity in the early 2000s really reflects a certain Zeitgeist, it would just show how little people care about the actual music these days, and how much they care about «self-expression», even when the «self-expression» in question is clearly a mystery, and it is hard even to understand when the guy is being sincere and when he is being tongue-in-cheek, let alone be certain of yourself — that you are really getting in tune with whatever it is he is trying to communicate. (This Iʼm saying simply because, no matter how many texts there have been written about Aeroplane, not a single one of them has made me believe that the author truly «gets» Mangum's message — and, as a result of that, that the «message» even exists in the first place).

So why not just take it off the frickinʼ pedestal already, one that even Mangum himself could not probably have dreamt of in his worst nightmare, and just take it for what it is — not one of the greatest albums ever made, but an interesting fusion of the impressionistic singer-songwriter with the starry-eyed psychedelic troubadour, seriously flawed, at times overwrought, more personal and intimate than its Elephant 6 brethren, but much less musically competent than oh so many of them? To quote the (quite undeniably) wise Albert King, "had you told it like it was, it wouldnʼt be like it is". Quite a peculiar situation, really, although far be it from me to hold any kind of grudge against the record or blame Jeff himself for all the inadequate reaction. For consolation, I would like to state that ʻHolland, 1945ʼ at least belongs on any respectable, representative compilation of 1990s psycho-pop or Elephant 6 anthology, and perhaps the title track as well.


  1. I like your honest review and the way you approach the album. I share much of your view on this album, although it doesn't nag me the way it seems to do to you (I take the music for what it is outside of it's reputation). There are 3-4 attractive songs on the album and I appreciate singing along with these songs feeling like I can keep up with the actual singer without being blessed without a good voice myself (I don't care about the lyrics and, like you, don't get much of the overall message, but singing the words feels good).

    One things that does bother a bit is, that if you don't like an album, specifically for more albums, all is wrong suddenly: really, does it matter what the album sleeve looks like? It's not like Funeral's artwork is better (or worse).

  2. George trashes masterpieces like this and Loveless and it is a dead giveaway his music tastes are sadly as conventional and old-fashion as it gets...

    ...luckily, almost everyone disagree.

    Please never review Astral Weeks and Ys. Stick to your Queen reviews.

    1. "Trashes Loveless?" "Stick to your Queen reviews?" Do you even read the texts before commenting on them?

  3. oh, okay. he did give Loveless a fairly decent review, but even with that album it took him ages to come a.

    let's not forgetMoon Pix, Desertshore, Pink Moon...any classic that goes beyond the rock "obviousness"

    1. Please stop bullshitting me, strange anonymous person. There are literally hundreds of "non-rock-obvious" albums that I have given positive reviews to over the years. If Neutral Milk Hotel do not happen to be among them, there are clearly more complex reasons behind that than OPENYOURMINDTOTHEGREATMYSTERYBLAHBLAHBLAH.

  4. I normally don't care much about production, but this album is nigh unlistenable due to the cacaphony of brass, off-key vocals, electronic whizzing, primitive acoustic strumming and distortion that seem to all fight for supremacy in the mix. Holland, 1945 might be a good song, but why elevate this version when it's obvious that even an acoustic demo would probably be superior, see e.g.

    I think I do get why people like this album. There is something about primitive guitar strumming and overemoting vocals which can be emotionally resonant if the mood strikes you, because it's so immediate and tries to directly reach you. Combined with the mystique, both biographical and lyrical, it can reach prophetic status. And at that point it ceases to matter whether the music is any good. If you're a person alienated from society who finds cultural norms oppressive and who is not drawn to conventional music because it's fake and commercial and so on, then you might be drawn to NMH, because Magnum speaks for you and is your soulmate or whatever. It doesn't matter that he is weird, because he appeals to weird people.

    The conflict comes when people try to objectively rate this album and point out there are contemporaries of Magnum who are more musically interesting, lyrically cleverer etc. And this offends fans, because depressed loners are by nature narcissists who feel like people who don't like their super special record are kind of robots without inner life. Yet by rating this album comparatively you destroy its mystique, it ends up as just another above average indie record, and you even risk hinting at the reasons for its popularity having more to do with hype and arbitrary factors than with any special quality.

  5. I would actually say it is obscene to call this album a masterpiece (this is in reference to the anonymous comment above), but then it certainly looks like a half-assed attempt at trolling. I mean, fucking Queen? Come on, man, you can do better than that.

  6. This is the kind of "thoughtful condemnation" that is both your specialty and an incredibly rare thing in our contemporary critical landscape. (Which is mostly either mushy vague ruminations of love or mean-spirited, unfair attacks.) Thank you, George.

    I, of course, love this album. Though only about a third as much as I did when I was a teen. (Which means I still like it quite a bit.)

  7. "What do carrot flowers have to do with Anne Frank?"

    Reading this particular review is a little like reading a middling review of Dark Side of the Moon in which a befuddled reviewer repeatedly grapples with its unclear associations to the Wizard of Oz.

    The drawn out, heartfelt declaration, "I LOVE YOU JESUS CHRIST!" should be an early tip-off that the notion of this album being about a young Jewish girl hiding from the Nazis is largely irrelevant.

    If Anne Frank's diary is what helped get Mangum's addled brain going, then whatever -- I'm sure acid, pot, speed, and a fucked up childhood did too, but that doesn't sound so good in dumbass promotional interviews. Better to hide behind famous adolescent literature when speaking publicly about something intimately personal. Besides, Mangus -- never quite seeming in his right mind to me -- is about as reliable a source for what his albums are "about" as Barret or Dylan would be at their most overwhelmed.

    It doesn't take much critical thinking to understand that the central subject is simply Mangum's own childhood. Not an ideal one, for sure, but no literal holocaust either. The sense of childlike exuberance, helter-skelter sensuality, and domestic chaos is too specific and too obviously personal to be about anyone else.

    Of course, I disagree strongly about the quality, importance, and (perhaps accidental) genius of the album -- be that as it may -- but let's dispense with red herring, promotional, Wikipedia-fodder bullshit when sitting down to give a legendary album its proper due.

    The fact that Holland, 1945 -- of all songs! -- is the ONLY one George singled out as a highlight speaks volumes about the limiting effect that promotional interviews and all the secondary chatter they beget can have on what we're able to appreciate about a musical work of art.

    Forget the interviews, the reviews, and even the songs; this is one case where only the album can say the thing. And it does. And it ain't about Anne freakin'forkin' Frank (No offense).

    1. Thanks for the thoughtful comment. However, first of all, the Wizard of Oz analogy is weak, since there is no connection to Wizard of Oz whatsoever on the original album; Anne Frank IS, want it or not, one of the deliberate symbolic images on this record, and clearly this is a delicate symbol to handle, so if you do this "oddly", you can expect a certain reaction, Wikipedia-fodder bullshit or not.

      Second, fine, it's not an album about Anne Frank (and I think I made that fairly well understood in the text), it's an album about Mangum's childhood. This does not excuse it from any single problem that has been mentioned in the review.

  8. So sad this beautiful album has been treated like this..

  9. This is a thoughtful and fair review (as always George), but I do feel that you've missed what might be the key theme to this album, and part of its appeal.

    This album is not about Anne Frank but Sex, and particularly the feelings of young people confronted with the strange, ugly, beautiful appeal of sex and relationships for the first time. For all of Mangum's obliqueness he's pretty clear on this subject: "as we lay and learned what each other's bodies were for," "in the dark we will take off our clothes," "semen stains the mountain tops," "wanting something warm and moving," "Your father made fetuses with flesh licking ladies," "from above you I sank into your soul."

    In this context, I'd suggest the two-headed boy's second head is pretty obvious. And at this risk of getting all Freudian, think about all the phallic imagery in the first track: carrot, flower, tower, snake. Sure Mangum mixes in imagery of religion, death, and WWII, but the overriding theme is a young man trying to make sense of sex, women, and relationships. Such themes are ubiquitous in rock music of course, but Mangum presents them as a warped, surreal fairytale, an even stranger take on Alice and Wonderland. In this context even the musical saw and drunken horns contribute to the atmosphere, as do Mangum's strained, unhinged vocals.

    And that's a key part of this album's appeal IMO. Most people proclaiming this the greatest album of all time heard it somewhere between 12-25, the precise age at which it would have the most resonance and when its vision of sexual relationships makes the most sense. All these factors are extra-musical of course, but still contribute to a special impact if you're in the right audience. Certainly not the greatest album ever, but still unique and occasionally touching if you're in the right mood.