It was my friend Jez that tried to get me into Neutral Milk Hotel many moons ago, albeit five or six years after the release of this, their seminal album. I had met Jez at my call centre job in the early 2000s and I’m not quite sure how we got to talking about music but it was on this that we had clicked as friends. We were constantly introducing each other to bands. He gave me a copy of “In the aeroplane over the sea” to sample, telling me they sounded like The Decemberists, a band I was just getting into at the time, but for some reason, the album didn’t click with me.
My friend wasn’t wrong in his comparison though, I can totally see where this album influenced Colin Meloy now. In fact, a lot of indie folk bands of the 2000s were influenced by it. However, when Jeff Mangum started the project in the late 80s, the sound was decidedly different. It was a lot noisier and raw and even less put together, if you can believe it. “In the aeroplane over the sea” was the second album released by Neutral Milk Hotel and the first recorded as an actual group. Before that, the ‘band’ was whoever was around at the time to perform with Mangum. This second album is still very lo-fi but it is also an electric mishmash of genres and instruments. It is ugly but beautiful, the lyrics influenced by Mangum’s reflections on Anne Frank.
Adding to the lore of the “In the aeroplane over the sea” is the fact that Jeff Mangum put the band on indefinite hiatus the year following its release after becoming disenchanted with everything. The album did well critically but not commercially right away. However, it picked up steam over the years, people discovering it way too late, has since sold many copies, and has now appeared on multiple best albums of the 90s lists. Mangum reformed the band in 2013 and toured extensively into the spring of 2015 before disappearing back into the night.
I finally the picked up this album again around that time because they were announced to play the folk festival in my city and this time it clicked. Yep, I fell in love with it just in time to see them live. The three picks below are amongst my favourites on the album but they are by no means the only great tracks.
“Ghost”: It is aggressive acoustic strumming and a rumbling and distorted fuzz bass, almost obscuring Jeff Mangum’s stream of consciousness-like lyrics. Indeed, at times, it sounds like he needs to be yelling above the cacaphony. “Ghost, ghost I know you live within me. I feel you as you fly in thunder clouds above the city into one that I love.” The words started out from the thoughts that his apartment was haunted and like many of the songs on the album, reflections of Anne Frank creep through. From there, frantic drums kick in as well as a pocket of duelling horns, none of which sound super proficient or rather, their attention to detail is lacking. Yeah, it’s a shambles. But it’s a wonderful shambles.
“In the aeroplane over the sea”: “And one day we will die and our ashes will fly from the aeroplane over the sea but for now we are young, let us lay in the sun.” The title track of the album is still hinting at the supernatural but has a somewhat happier bent. The acoustic strumming that starts the tune and carries on throughout is of the head swaying type and never fails to bring a smile. You can almost picture Mangum singing this wth his eyes closed in ecstasy. He adds in those same horns we heard in the previous track to the party and for shits and giggles, some singing saw. Seriously. How often do you hear a singing saw in popular music? Right.
“The king of carrot flowers, pt. 1”: “And this is the room one afternoon I knew I could love you. And from above you how I sank into your soul into that secret place where no one dares to go.” The opening track with the seemingly nonsensical name is but part 1 of a two song trilogy (parts 2 and 3 follow on the album’s next track). It’s short at two minutes and not necessarily as frantic as some of the other tracks that follow it. It’s like a warm up for the joy and bliss that’s to come. It is simple and innocent, that aforementioned kitchen sink instrumentation and breathless and almost random lyrics are present here as well, evoking yellowed polaroids and long ago discarded toys and favourite blankets. It is the purity of first love set to an off-kilter accordion and what is better than that?
Check back next Thursday for album #2. In the meantime, here are the previous albums in this list:
10. Sloan “Navy blues”
9. Cake “Prolonging the magic”
8. Embrace “The good will out”
7. Mojave 3 “Out of tune”
6. Rufus Wainwright “Rufus Wainwright”
5. Manic Street Preachers “This is my truth now tell me yours”
4. Pulp “This is hardcore”
You can check out my Best Albums page here if you’re interested in my other favourite albums lists.