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Friday, March 05, 2010

Indie Gold: Neutral Milk Hotel: "In the Aeroplane Over the Sea"

In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, the second, final, and - some would say - best album from Neutral Milk Hotel, was released in February of 1998.  As I sit here trying to think of what music I was listening to during that time of my life, I am stunned to find that I can't really remember.  I was 13 years old, in the final months of my 8th grade year; and using this knowledge I can logically deduce that I was most likely listening to some sort of Christian music at the time.  Still, I can't be sure.  In fact, the only thing that I can say with absolute certainty is that whatever it is I was listening to, it could not have been as special as this album.

My first experience with Aeroplane was in 2004, shortly after I began discovering indie music.  A friend of mine had recently discovered the album and was gushing about it.  When he finally showed it to me, I could not understand what all the fuss was about.  I was still new to this whole other world of music, so to hear a record as unapologetically unpolished as this was quite shocking, and completely off-putting.  And that's where it ended.  The next time I listened to Neutral Milk Hotel was in January of 2010, only this time, my experience was much different.

In a word, I would say that In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is "perfect."  It exists in its own musical universe, with the ability to remain both touching and relevant a decade after its intital release.  Album-opener "The King of Carrot Flowers Pt. 1" features a catchy, post-grunge era guitar-riff that surprisingly doesn't distract from Jeff Mangum's bizarre, but touching lyrics on dysfunctional childhood.  By parts 2 and 3 of the song, you're fully immersed in this world that Mangum has created; a world of frustration, decrepitness, and, surprisingly, hope.

"It is powerful in ways that other albums have so often failed to be, and it clearly remains so 12 years after its initial release."

The title track, is a journey in itself.  There is nothing particularly impressive about it from a technical standpoint (I don't "play" guitar, but I could play this song), but the lyrics are gorgeous.  I've put more plays into this song than any other by the band, and it's still just as beautiful as it was the first time I listened to it.  I can remember being close to tears a few weeks ago when Mangum sings, "When we meet on a cloud/I'll be laughing out loud/ I'll be laughing with everyone I see/ Can't believe how strange it is to be anything at all."  It's powerful stuff.  Not complicated, but strong enough to tap into emotions that that are rarely explored in music.  I don't know how long the waiting period should be for me to proclaim this as my favorite song of all time, but the song is up there for sure!

By this point in the album, you're completely sucked into to what you are hearing.  Every song is so enchanting, so strong, that you never really "snap out" of the listening experience.  Even "Two-Headed Boy," which is by all accounts a recording of poor quality, feels appropriate because Mangum has already set the dirty, poor tone of the album with the preceding songs.  So any song that follows not only maintains this tone, but expounds upon it.  Whether it's the heavily distorted rock of "Holland, 1945," or the simple and entrancing, "Oh Comely," every song on the album fits, works, and strengthens the overall mood of the album.  Even less-notable songs like "Communist Daughter" and the two instrumental tracks feel like natural segments of the whole.

Usually I can review an album within 4 or 5 days of my first listen, and this was my intention with In the Aeroplane Over the Sea.  But reviewing an album you love listening oftentimes means that you have to have to set aside your fandom and approach the album from a more critical point of view.  I started listening to this album around two months ago, and it's taken me this long to write a review of it because I never wanted to stop listening to it as a music-lover and switch to critique mode.  Simply put, this is one of the best albums I've ever heard.  It is powerful in ways that other albums have so often failed to be, and it clearly remains so 12 years after its initial release.  If you have yet to hear this phenomenal album, you have absolutely nothing to lose.  Go buy a copy (I chose vinyl)!  Go fall in love with it!  You won't regret it.

Key Tracks:
1. "The King of Carrot Flowers Pt. 1"
2. "In the Aeroplane Over the Sea"
3. "Two-Headed Boy"
4. "Holland, 1945"
5. "Oh Comely"

10 out of 10 Stars


Anonymous said...

thank u........................................

Tobias said...

Couldn't agree more. And that line you quoted from the title song is one of my all-time favourite song lyric lines. Thank you for reviewing this :)