Tuesday, December 11, 2007
 In The Aeroplane Over The Sea
Album: In The Aeroplane Over The Sea
Artist: Neutral Milk Hotel
Release Date: February 1998
Producer: Robert Schneider
“There are lights in the clouds
Anna’s ghost all around
Hear her voice as it’s rolling and ringing through me, soft and sweet
How the notes all bend and reach above the trees
Now how I remember you
How I would push my fingers through
Your mouth to make those muscles move
It made your voice so smooth and sweet
But now we keep where we don’t know
All secrets sleep in winter clothes
With one you loved so long ago
No we don’t even know his name”
- from the title track
As I’ve sat down to work on this project and write about these albums, I try and do a fair amount of research on each one. I have a lot of ‘useless’ knowledge knocking around my head, but I find it’s sometimes not enough for what I’d like to convey. I visit Wikipedia, Allmusic, maybe Pitchfork or Rolling Stone; every once in a while, I’ll go to a band’s website, or google their lyrics if I need to. But as I listen to In The Aeroplane Over The Sea, I realize I don’t want to know anything about them, their leader Jeff Mangum, or the making of this album. I don’t want to know what Mangum looks like, and I definitely don’t want to see what he looks like when he’s singing, which paints my eminent video search in doubt. I would prefer the mystery stay intact, and if you’ve heard this album I think you’d agree. In fact, I already know too much. Off the top of my head I can tell you that this is NMH’s second album (On Avery Island was the first), and they’re a part of the Elephant 6 collective, which I believe is centered in Georgia – maybe Atlanta, or Athens, I forget. I can also say I’m pretty sure that other than a scant few appearances and a live album, Mangum has been an artistic recluse since this album came out, for almost a decade. And lastly, I can tell you he’s alive, right now…I think, I mean, I don’t have a team watching the guy’s house or anything, but as far as I know, he’s chillin’ right now, maybe watching Rachel Ray or Unsolved Mysteries or some shit. Like Pink Floyd’s Syd Barrett or the man known as Jandek, Mangum has become a whisper, a rumor, a ghost, an unseen man with a beloved, haunting voice singing you oddities through your headphones. He makes Portishead and Axl Rose seem like Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan…not talent-wise, just, ya know, media attention-wise.
This album is such an enigma that it makes me hate what I know. I wish I could go back to when I first opened the CD wrapper, and discover it all over again, shutting out the little info I would eventually pick up. All one could ascertain from Aeroplane’s liner notes is that the voice belongs to Mr. Mangum, maybe his Elephant 6 affiliation if you’re perceptive, and yes, these songs were indeed recorded in the late Summer of 1997, not in some unspecified lost time, the way the album plays, like a dusty artifact found in an attic. There is nothing here, beyond the overcharged fuzz bass pointing to a post-Punk timeframe, to suggest any historical alignment to any of Mangum’s music. Surely he has peers – I guess Will Oldham and Jonathan Donahue of Mercury Rev – and he has followers – definitely Conor Oberst – but no one sounds like Neutral Milk Hotel, and NMH doesn’t sound like anyone either. This is an album that you are never prepared for, even if you are 60 and have sampled all of music’s pleasures; to call it Folk music would be like calling love something to pass the time, a short-sale punishable by banishment from the human race. If Pop music is a circus, then Jeff Mangum is surely the tarot card reader, mystifying at every turn, speaking in what seem like acid-damaged riddles.
“The King Of Carrot Flowers” starts innocently enough, a quiet tune over acoustic strum, but by the time Mangum sings “Your mom would stick a fork right into daddy’s shoulder”, your ears have perked up at his non-linear tales of family strife and searching pubescence. He’s already confounded you, and be prepared to stay disoriented for the rest of the 40 minutes, as he arranges chaos into beauty, communicated in fragile devotion, rambunctious outbursts, funeral regret, rebellious impulses, and naïve awe. It is a document of moments that never happened, but always happen, and keep happening, innocence, heartache and lust doomed to repeat. The drone of the organ on “King Pt. 2” intertwines with Mangum’s Christ worship, warping his hymnal back to the early field recordings of the 1900’s until the band crash-lands from Planet SST for Part 3. The swaying wonder of the title track raises the album even higher, encapsulating the gothic side of the American South, specifically the dark corners of New Orleans’ French Quarter. As Mangum sings “What a curious life we have found here tonight, there is music that sounds from the street”, drunken horns stagger down the middle of the road, bumping into each other, with one sober trumpet left standing as the designated keeper of the melody; they’re accompanied by the sighs of bowed saws, like scary winds whistling through a gloomy forest, wavering like the audio on old reel-to-reel films. He ends the song laughing on a cloud, feeling strange to be anything at all, and you wonder how can someone obviously so genius (albeit cracked genius) present himself as so unsure of his talents.
If the title track is New Orleans’ Mardi Gras celebrations, then the instrumental overture “The Fool” is a funeral procession shuffling down the narrow streets, brass blaring their pains like car horns over a plodding waltz. The album’s chewy center, “Holland, 1945” is a slice of Pop-Punk so far out of place on this album until the mariachi horns enter during the chorus, and you realize that from the preceding funeral, you’ve been reborn, and hidden amongst the surrealist lyrics, Magnum opines on reincarnation and the cycle of life, “bodies once moved but don’t move anymore”, with the girl he loved from Holland now “a little boy in Spain”, concluding that “it’s so sad to see the world agree that they’d rather see their faces fill with flies all while I’d want to keep white roses in their eyes.” Mangum continues his exploration of the transport from this world to whichever afterlife he believes in on “Ghost” which revisits the lift-off of the spirit from the flesh from different angles, and with much bombast, leading into the untitled tenth track and second instrumental overture. A swinging playground romp, it features a uilleann pipes solo, a trombone on a bungee, what sounds like a circus calliope, and well, everything they had lying around; someone’s probably banging on the kitchen sink in the back somewhere.
Save for “Communist Daughter”, a Beatlesque lament decorated with a French horn, that leaves us with the songs that have been hoisted up by fans as the talking points, the best feet forward of Aeroplane: the two-part “Two-Headed Boy” and the 8-minute “Oh Comely”. For all three, Mangum manages to rival peak Dylan, pulling the passion of “Desolation Row” and the extroverted pain of “Ballad Of A Thin Man” through the surrealism of his “115th Dream”. What “Oh Comely” is about is anyone’s guess really; it begins like so many of these songs, seemingly dealing with death, with Mangum promising, “I will be with you when you loose your breath”. He then slithers and squirms his way through a dizzying abstract poem filled with fruit falling from holes, comforting friends, enemies to be crushed, roaming daddies knocking up whores, white trash mommies, stadium rocking, ovaries, green fleshy flowers, “sugary sweet machines smelling of semen”, and mass graves (500 families??). His voice careens back and forth, reaching for notes he can barely make, but with the faith that his passion means more than his skill, rising to meet and become one with the horn section, running through vocal melodies recalling the intersection of traditional Celtic and Appalachian folk music, and even vaguely hinting at Japanese chord progressions in the song’s epilogue, closing with the cannibalistic image of moving inside a stranger’s stomach – no easy answers here, but the journey is the reward. Like “Oh Comely”, part one of “Two-Headed Boy” features Mangum throwing his voice around like few of his contemporaries have the courage to do. It is a nakedly emotional song, rushing along like some alternate universe version of The Who’s “Pinball Wizard”. Little is explained about our titular possibly-Siamese young man, but he sounds a bit deaf, dumb & blind, treated almost like a museum exhibit – the immortal lyric of “placing fingers through the notches in your spine” positioned against “pulleys and weights” – and apparently his special needs must be handled with care. When Mangum returns with the slower second part, he’s making no more sense, but he’s still got you riveted. He alludes to the boy’s father, and a possible separation of the heads, a longing for a brother “one in the same”, touching even on lyrics of other songs from the album, drawing everything together, like the closing of a stage play. The melody of part one slips back in at the closing, Mangum laying down the hope of a future with a caring woman and a peaceful life for our boy. But wait, he finishes your journey with uncertainty, with the line “don’t hate her when she gets up to leave”… Then he gets up to leave. You hear him put the guitar down, take off his headphones, and walk off, shoeless feet on a hard wood floor. He leaves you hanging with the mystery, of the album and of himself as the musician. Just as his bizarre cast of characters must continue on with uncertainty, so must the end of Neutral Milk Hotel’s story in the history of music remain uncertain. We can only hope that Mangum one day puts the headphones back on and picks up the guitar again.
01. “The King Of Carrot Flowers Pt. One”
02. “The King Of Carrot Flowers Pts. Two & Three”
03. “In The Aeroplane Over The Sea”
04. “Two-Headed Boy”
05. “The Fool”
06. “Holland, 1945”
07. “Communist Daughter”
08. “Oh Comely”
11. “Two-Headed Boy Pt. Two”
Now that I've seen these videos, watched the voice come out of the body, it thankfully doesn't lessen the magical effect, though I expected Jeff Mangum to be a little older, and yet again this was a decade ago. Anyway, I hope you enjoy watching as much as I did.
“The King Of Carrot Flowers Pts. Two & Three” [live in Athens, GA, 03.97]
"In The Aeroplane Over The Sea" [live in Athens, GA, 10.97]
"Two-Headed Boy" [live in Athens, GA, 03.97]
"Oh Comely" [live in Athens, GA, 10.97]
- BONUS: "Holland, 1945" [live in Athens, GA, 10.97]
- BONUS: "Ghost/Untitled" [live in Austin, 04.98]
- BONUS: "Two-Headed Boy Pt. Two" [live in Athens, GA, 03.97]