Revisiting “In The Aeroplane Over the Sea”

One of my very early posts on this blog was about Neutral Milk Hotel’s In The Aeroplane Over the Sea, which, at the time, I ranked as one of my favorite albums of the 90s. Revisiting this embarrassing post, something that really sticks out to me is how uncomfortable I seemed with liking the album. I started with a blatant admission that it’s not really my kind of music, then shifted into over-the-top, breathless praise, as if I was trying to convince myself as I wrote that I really liked the album as much as I was letting on. (“Maybe if I throw in a few more adjectives, I’ll convince them.”)

I did like the album, at first, but I think I did because it was an album I was highly incentivized to like. Over the years, Aeroplane has reached a status as one of those canonized albums that people use to define what indie music is. If you like Aeroplane, you’re one of the people who “gets it,” who appreciates music on a deeper level than most of the people around you. And one aspect of my personality is that I always need to be one of the people who “gets it” — once I choose something as a hobby, I like to build an obsessive knowledge about it. So when I started listening to music and wanted to build my collection, I started looking at a lot of critics’ “best of” lists, which Aeroplane was frequently near the top of. I knew critics loved it, and most indie music fans I knew loved it, so I gradually started to convince myself of its worth.

As it turns out, Aeroplane is an album that benefits a ton from this type of discovery process. If I had just listened to Aeroplane cold with no prior knowledge of it, it’s very possible that I would have dismissed it instantly, because Jeff Mangum’s voice is whiny, there are too many instruments, and the lyrics don’t make sense. But approaching it with the knowledge that people consider it to be a landmark, genius album changes everything. Suddenly, Mangum’s voice isn’t whiny, but is “idiosyncratic,” the excess of instruments is “bold” and “daring,” and the nonsense lyrics are “cryptic” and “haunting.” If you are actively looking for the genius in something, chances are you can eventually do enough mental gymnastics to find it.

I’m not sure when I stopped liking Aeroplane, and it’s still hard to articulate why (though I’m going to try). I think the core reason is that, to me, Aeroplane has always been one of those albums that is really about a story. Fans of the album know it quite well: Jeff Mangum was moved by the diary of Anne Frank, which inspired the music and lyrics on the album, and after its release had a nervous breakdown and mostly stopped recording music. This story plays a big part in why I bought into the sincerity of the album, which is a huge part of its appeal. These sorts of narratives that emerge can be dangerous, because they can cause a reaction to elements that aren’t actually present in the music itself.

In Aeroplane, one of those elements is Anne Frank’s story. It’s a very loaded story, especially for anyone who is Jewish like I am: it’s a tragedy that not only evokes memories of the Holocaust, but also memories of first learning about the Holocaust — for many young Jews, reading her diary in elementary school is when we first really start to grasp what happened and realize that, had we been alive at that time, it easily could have been us. And we hear it all through the writing of someone our age who lived it, which is a very powerful thing when you’re a kid. Given those memories, it’s easy to see why any sort of media relating to Anne Frank and the Holocaust can seem inherently moving — even if it’s not particularly good.

When I liked Aeroplane, my favorite song on it was “Holland, 1945,” which is also the most widely acclaimed song on the album. Not coincidentally, it’s also the song most directly about Anne Frank. On the surface, it’s just a reasonable up-tempo indie rock song, yet for me it always had this emotional weight to it, which I attributed to Mangum’s conviction and honesty. I think I was wrong: what makes “Holland, 1945” feel special isn’t Mangum — it’s the story that he’s referencing. Without the narrative thrust provided by Frank’s story, “Holland, 1945” is just another indie folk song.

Granted, part of art is often illuminating us about historical events, and making us think about them in a different context. I just don’t think Aeroplane really accomplishes that, because the album isn’t actually about Anne Frank: it’s about Jeff Mangum feeling really sad after reading Anne Frank’s diary. This is where the use of Frank’s story starts to get kind of gross for me: Mangum takes the feelings people have about Anne Frank and the Holocaust and tries to transfer them to himself, so instead of feeling sympathy for Frank, you feel sympathy for him because he’s sad about her diary. Given that the whole appeal of the album for me was that it was “honest,” recognizing this self-absorbed and manipulative presentation ultimately killed any enjoyment I could get out of it. I felt like I was tricked, which is not a good feeling to have when listening to music.

And because of how it uses Anne Frank’s story, Aeroplane has been credited with an emotional weight and “importance” that I don’t think the music itself actually earns. When I listen to it now, I’m never particularly impressed by the arrangements, Mangum’s singing, or even the lyrics. Almost everything I liked about the album existed outside of the music — it was always about the story, its place in the “Mangum as genius” narrative, or the feeling that I needed to like this album to “get it.” It’s an album I liked because I wanted to like it, and I didn’t know or think enough about music to recognize its flaws.

None of this is meant to imply that all fans of Neutral Milk Hotel are mindless sheep. But I think it’s undeniable that, more than any other album, Aeroplane has benefited hugely from narratives becoming attached to it, and the pressure to conform to indie culture by liking it. And has years have gone on, amid reunion tours and anniversary pieces, it has been spoken about in increasingly hyperbolic, uncritical tones by pretty much everyone (including me a few years ago) — which only adds to the feeling that the album is somehow beyond reproach, and it’s something you MUST like. Which is frustrating, because one of the most powerful parts of music to me is that we get to choose what music matters to us. At some point, Aeroplane mattered to me, but it doesn’t anymore and I see no reason to pretend otherwise.

Favorite 90s Albums: #10 – Neutral Milk Hotel – “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea”

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.