Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Albums we love: In the Aeroplane over the Sea by Neutral Milk Hotel

In the Aeroplane Over the Sea
by Neutral Milk Hotel

Released in 1998 by Merge Records, In the Aeroplane over the Sea is the second and last album by Neutral Milk Hotel.  Adding to the mystic of the album, NMH split up shortly after the release and lead singer/ mastermind Jeff Magnum became somewhat of a recluse.  However, earlier this year, he performed five NMH songs at a benefit concert for punk pioneer Chris Knox.  Since its release, the album has become one of the most influential albums in the indie rock canon, though it has its share of detractors.  Fans of the band tend to be a devoted, if slightly nutty bunch.  They are not only familiar with NMH’s two studio releases (Aeroplane and On Avery Islandand EP (Everything Is...) , but also have copies of the band’s three cassettes released only through Elephant 6 from the early 90s.  I must admit I’m a more casual listener of NMH; though I do own Jeff Magnum’s collaboration with Elephant 6-er Julian Koster called Major Organ and the Adding Machine, which is definitely an acquired taste.  I was somewhat surprised to find out what a cult favorite the album was, because I was well into college before I found anyone else who had even heard of the band.

I first discovered the album when I was 16, a few years after the album came out.  I bought it because it was from Merge Records (a very cool indie label) and had a odd but awesome cover.  This was pre-iTunes and by-and-large file sharing, so not a whole lot of opportunities to listen to albums before you bought them.  I was definitely blown away by the album the first time I listen to it.  I was into a lot of lo-fi indie and sadcore indie rock (think: Belle and Sebastian, Bright Eyes, and The Mountain Goats), so I was impressed by the fullness of the sound and use of horns, accordions, and other instruments largely ignored by indie rockers at the time.   It sounded like a bizarre mixture of Eastern European folk music and psychedelia. 

Magnum's lyrics are cryptic and surreal, including lines like "Two headed boy she is all you could need/ She will feed you tomatoes and radio wires" (from "Two Headed Boy, Part Two").  However, the intensity of emotion in the lyrics and the awkward sexuality expressed in songs like "Two Headed Boy" and "Oh Comely" make the album more than relatable for a teenager.  The album is supposedly about Anne Frank, but the theme is more apparent in some songs ("Holland 1945" and "Oh Comely") than others ("Communist Daughter").  Death is perhaps the most common thread among the songs on Aeroplane, whether they are depicting reincarnation ('Holland 1945", "Ghost"), the afterlife ("In the Aeroplane Over the Sea"), or the physical process of dying ("Two Headed Boy").  Still, in spite of its morbid focus, the album manages to be uplifting overall. 

Recommended for fans of: Olivia Tremor Control, Of Montreal, Beirut, The Decemberists, A Hawk and A Hacksaw