Neutral Milk Hotel – 20 Years Later
-By Gabe Straight-
February 10 marked the twenty-year anniversary of the sophomore album from Louisiana native Jeff Mangum and his project Neutral Milk Hotel entitled In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. By most people, it’s overlooked and not worth talking about. For the rest, it’s viewed as the single most celebrated indie record of all time. I started to get into Aeroplane after my friend introduced me to them through the title track from the album.
Initially, I didn’t get into it.
It was too weird for me and I didn’t think it made sense. Everything was too overblown, I thought. However, that didn’t stop me from revisiting it to justify my point from time to time. Every time I listened again, I liked the album just a little bit more. And then, in a momentous and grandiose strike of realization, the album made sense to me. Its vague and cryptic lyrics became a manifesto for life itself, the overblown instruments became a testament to raw humanity, and I now consider Aeroplane to be my favorite album of all time.
One of the best aspects of the album
is how Mangum can manage to give many of the songs on the album depth and layers with just a guitar and his vocals. Songs like “Two Headed Boy” (and its sequel), “Oh Comely,” and “King of Carrot Flowers Pt. 1” feel like there’s at least something more going on. Mangum does this by changing the tone of his guitar strokes and the unique nature of his vocals. Anyone with a couple guitar lessons can play the entire album, and anyone with any idea of pitch can sing it.
Just because the songs are in Mangum’s range doesn’t mean anything on Aeroplane. Mangum is constantly straining his voice and forcing himself to sing with a massively emotional presence, which contributes to the album’s raw humanity unlike anything in contemporary music.
When Mangum does add other instruments, it makes for some true psychedelic goodness. The brass section sounds like it’s dropping acid and the shortwave radios giving things an extra layer are the prime suspects. The electronics on the album sound so natural, almost like there isn’t someone controlling it. Like it’s a separate being. The introduction of “Two Headed Boy Pt. 2” or the bridge of the title track features sounds I have heard in the real world, but are distorted and manipulated. At the same time, they sound as it did that all by itself.
Even if the electronics are elaborate, the guitar is anything but.
With the exception of “Oh Comely,” every chord progression on the album is incredibly simple. Anyone with a basic concept of chords and barr chords can play the album in its entirety. But then again, anyone can play Bob Dylan’s early work. But, that doesn’t mean everyone can write it. Like Dylan, Mangum could be seen as a poet.
His lyrics have a certain vague urgency to them - like you can tell there’s something going on. However, you’re not quite sure what it is. Lines like “the world that you need is wrapped in gold silver sleeves, left beneath Christmas trees in the snow” and “now she’s a little boy in Spain playing pianos filled with flames” are just some of the lines where Mangum uses beautiful imagery and metaphors to paint a picture of the deprivation of innocence, the joys and terrors of life itself, the anxieties of casual sex. Because of the vagueness of the lyrics, the album can be picked apart in many ways. That’s one of the joys of art overall.
Even after 20 years of existence, Aeroplane continues to be one of the most celebrated and talked about albums in the new millennium. It’s dense, beautiful, raw, and layered, with a hint of sweetness. It’s proven itself to be on its way to reaching “timeless” status as an album. When people talk about indie rock, they at some point bring up Aeroplane, and there’s a very good reason why they do.