I should hate “In The Aeroplane Over the Sea.” Really, I should. I mean, a nasal voiced, hipster white guy singing about how sad he is after reading Anne Frank’s diary? It would be difficult to imagine a lamer concept for an album or one that is deserving of more ridicule. And as a devoted fan of girl rock and hard-hitting rock music in general, sensitive male-fronted folk-rock lies pretty far outside of my comfort zone.
And yet, here we are. I do love “In The Aeroplane Over the Sea” — maybe not as much as a lot of other people, given that is it one of the most beloved indie albums ever, but enough to consider it one of the finest albums of what I consider the greatest decade in music.
In trying to articulate why I love “Aeroplane” so much when I typically can’t stand wimpy guy music, I decided that I love it because it is coming from such an honest place. There is something undeniable about frontman Jeff Mangum’s sincere, relentless dedication to this seemingly silly concept, and the fact that doubt never seemed to enter his mind: At no point did he say, “hey guys, don’t you think this horn part is a bit much?” or “isn’t the phrase ‘semen stains the mountaintops’ a bit too jarring and weird for a mass audience?” It is an album that is completely unconcerned with what other people think about it. It’s almost as if Mangum was inviting snarky jackasses like me to make fun of him because he knew, either due to an incredible amount of confidence or pure insanity (or both), that it would work.
Musically, “Aeroplane” is extremely original, with few real precedents when it comes to its combination of orchestral arrangements and fuzzed out, lo-fi production. The instrumentation is also bizarre, and Mangum’s use of accordions, horns, and other instruments gives the album a distinct timeless quality. While other albums on this list will have a distinct “90’s” sound, I find that “Aeroplane” sounds like it could have existed in pretty much any era of music. It isn’t tied down by any trends that were happening at the time — it just kind of exists.
Mangum’s lyrics are also a signature, replacing typical simple rock lyrics with long, wordy passages that read more like prose. He also is able to craft a lot of uncomfortable imagery, like on the eight minute epic “Oh Comely” which has lines like “your father made fetuses with flesh-licking ladies”, or on “Two-Headed Boy” when Mangum sings “and they’ll be placing fingers through the notches of your spine”. There’s also a direct reference to Anne Frank on “Oh Comely”, as Mangum wails “I wish I could save her in some sort of time machine.” It’s one of those moments that could be really corny, but Mangum is blessed with the gift of making lyrics like those sound like they’re coming straight from the bottom of his soul. That ability is able to make you feel that he sincerely cares about Anne Frank’s plight and isn’t just doing a glorified middle school writing assignment.
The highlight of the album for me is “Holland, 1945”, which is also the most straight-forward rock/pop song. The fast tempo and his typically wordy lyrics give Mangum’s vocals a rushed feel, as if he’s trying to cram every thought he has into the roughly three minutes of song he has to work with. It’s a feeling of wild, overstuffed imagination that permeates the album. It also is probably the song that is most directly about Anne Frank — about how “they buried her alive/one evening, 1945/with just her sister at her side.” “Holland, 1945” is sophisticated, legitimately catchy, and extremely moving. I think it stands up as one of the greatest indie rock songs of all time. If you don’t like it, there’s a very realistic chance that I hate you.
While the Anne Frank connection is well known, “Aeroplane” remains a very mysterious album, thanks to Mangum’s interpretive lyrics. It’s difficult to tell which parts of the album are about Frank, which are intensely personal, or whether the entire thing is a combination of both. The album gains further mystique due to Mangum’s life since the album: As “Aeroplane” has continued to garner acclaim and influence bands over the years, the man responsible for it has mostly been silent, instead content to play the occasional unannounced acoustic live set or contribute on albums made by friends. Only recently has Mangum re-emerged, announcing a solo tour and curating an All Tomorrow’s Parties music festival this year.
All of this makes it easy to see why “Aeroplane” is held in such high esteem by indie music fans. It’s a true “indie” album, in the sense that it has its own ideas and doesn’t seem to care about any trends. And Mangum himself is one of the most intriguing figures in the history of indie rock, a reclusive maybe-genius whose motivations for making it remain largely unknown. While “Aeroplane” has been one of the most influential indie albums ever, no artist has been able to replicate its conceptual nature, the sophisticated lyrics, the grand arrangements, and the emotional honesty (although The Decemberists have tried really, really hard). Many bands have taken bits and pieces of it; none have come close to it as a whole.
“Aeroplane” is the kind of album that I think unites people — almost all indie fans, regardless of what they typically listen to, seem to have some love for it. Listening to it, I am always in awe of its singularity, how it seems so detached from all other music, and how fearlessly emotional it is. It has alternately moved and baffled listeners for over a decade now, and seems like it will only continue to grow in popularity and acclaim as time goes on.