Neutral Milk Hotel released their second and last LP ‘In The Aeroplane Over The Sea’ in February 1998 and over the last decade and a half it has become a classic album growing in popularity as time has gone on. The lead singer Jeff Mangum became a cult hero after he virtually vanished after their second album and in recent years came back for a tour that was much celebrated among fans. The album has become one of the most debated and talked about albums in underground music.
I first listened to Neutral Milk Hotel when I was 17 with no knowledge of any of the hype around it which is the way I beg any of you to listen to it for your first time. I had merely stumbled across the title track and was immediately intrigued. The way in which Jeff Mangum sings in such a nasally yet powerful register was like nothing I‘d heard before. The way the singing saw comes howling into the song in the second verse, and then the horns later on. I’d never heard anything so peculiar yet beautiful. After I discovered the one song I listened to the whole album on repeat for weeks and just like that I had stepped into the fantasy world that is ‘In the Aeroplane Over the Sea’.
The thing that first stood out to me when listening to it was how much variety was in the album genre wise. The album takes influences from folk, noise, psychedelic as well as taking influence from multiple cultures of music. From the bagpipes used in the ‘Untitled’ track, to the singing saw in the title track; to the accordion used in the opening track; and the horns that are littered throughout the album. Everything on this album is arranged so beautifully and carefully. If you watch any footage of them live you will see that they jump between instruments multiple times, sometimes even during songs. Everything that is great about the varied instrumentation comes together on the song ‘The Fool’ which has everything overlapping with each other in this monstrously gloomy instrumental. They also have electric and acoustic guitars which play their biggest part in songs like ’The king of carrot flowers part 2’ and ‘Holland, 1945’ and feature some of the most biggest crescendos and are the songs that most easy to jump around to.
The thing about this record that really hooked me in though was the fact that Jeff Mangum has the ability to break my heart with his incredibly abstract lyricism. The lyricism of this album deserves a whole essay to itself because Mangum’s use of imagery is so detailed and vivid. The lyrics were influenced by Anne Frank, but whether they are directly about her or not doesn’t matter. What matters is that Anne Frank influenced Mangum to make this record have an underlying sadness the entire way through that has related to so many people in such a big way. He sings of the loss of many things in life. He sings of the loss of youth with lyrics like ‘But for now we are young, let us lay in the sun and count every beautiful thing we can see’, is there a better way to sum up what you wish you’d done in your youth? Mangum sings of the loss of innocence and the loss of what appears to be a lover he once had. This is notable on the song ‘Oh Comely’ which features some of the most wild imagery on the album with lines like ’your father made fetuses with flesh licking ladies’. Mangum is also battling with himself on this record with lines like ‘I wish I could save her in some sort of time machine’.
The acoustic guitars that feature throughout in the background play such basic chords, yet they are played in a way that sounds so fresh. This is best in the stripped back songs that just feature Mangum and his guitar. It emphasises Mangum’s voice which shows some of his most passionate singing, such as both parts of the ‘Two Headed Boy’ songs. On part one Mangum sings so loud you can actually hear it filtering through the microphone. The passion in his voice is so unbelievable that it makes the songs heartbreaking. In many of the songs Mangum’s lung capacity is incredible as he rarely takes a breath and has notes go on for longer than seems humanly possible. For me the stripped down side of the album hits it’s pinnacle in the final song on the album ‘Two Headed Boy Part Two’. I felt like I was taken on a journey throughout this album. A traumatic one at that and this song is the perfect ending to that traumatic journey in that it’s a moment of reflection. It features melodies from other parts of the album in a reminiscent way and even some of the same lyrics as other songs on the record. These bits hit you like when you see an old friend. It also features some of his most beautiful original lyrics like ’In your heart there’s a spark that just screams for a lover to bring a child to your chest that could lay as you sleep’ and ’in my dreams you’re alive and you’re crying’. The imagery that he has used in the entire album seems to peek in this song like it was a build up to it.
There is no justice I can do this album. It is simply an album that you need to experience on your own and interpret in your own way as so many people have and so many people do debate over. This record will only become more seminal in time.