For some reason, when VH1 counted down the best songs of the 1990s, they didn’t include anything from Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea album, despite the fact that, by my count, at least five of the eleven tracks on this album are contenders. I’ll attribute this oversight to the fact that VH1 and MTV Networks in general collectively know fuckall about great music. Those assholes have probably never even heard Neutral Milk Hotel.
But that’s okay. Neutral Milk Hotel isn’t for them. NMH is for me, and you too, if you’re willing to take a little trip to a magical world of two-headed boys, semen-stained mountain tops, and something vaguely to do with Anne Frank. The album was apparently inspired by dreams that Jeff Mangum (Neutral Milk Hotel’s vocalist and resident genius – I do not use this word lightly; dude is fucking gifted) had about a family’s ordeal during World War II. While Anne Frank is never mentioned by name in the album, there are clear parallels. For instance, Frank, like the girl in “Ghost” was born in 1929, though probably not in a bottle rocket.
Mangum got off the grid in a serious way after Aeroplane, becoming indie rock’s J.D. Salinger. The loss is ours and it’s unbearable. Especially when you consider the fact that Amanda Palmer, half of the insufferable Dresden Dolls, is now making a fucking high school musical based on In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. Mr. Mangum, if you come back now, you’re legally allowed to kill her. If not for her musical, then for the fact that the Dresden Dolls call themselves “Brechtian” and have no fucking idea what that even means. (Oh, and I heard how Palmer’s fans reacted to Radio Exile’s column which put her on a list of musicians who need to be punched in the face and I just want to say, if there are any Amanda Palmer Partisans reading Bollocks!, that I too think she should be punched in the face. Twice. Once for her own shitty music and once for her assault on Neutral Milk Hotel’s masterpiece. And you should probably be punched in the face too if you get your panties all up in a twist over some damn thing some people put up on the goddamn internet.)
But enough of that – what about Mangum’s original masterpiece, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea? Well, sometimes I’ll say that I’ve never heard anything like a particular album. That can be a bad thing (I’ve never heard anything like The Brian Jonestown Massacre’s My Bloody Underground, for instance, and I never want to again. It’s an offensively shitty album made by an egotistical junkie fuckup who thinks masturbating in a studio constitutes musical revolution. Someday, maybe I’ll tell you how I really feel about it) and it can be a tremendous, life-affirmingly awesome thing, like it is on The Flaming Lips’ Soft Bulletin album and Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea.
The album starts and ends with Mangum and an acoustic guitar (first on “The King of Carrot Flowers, Pt.1” and then on “Two Headed Boy, Pt. 2”) but in between, there’s accordions, horns, sawblades (shit you not) and some of the most amazingly expressive rock music I’ve ever heard. While there’s much ballyhoo and hullaballoo about what, exactly, Mangum is saying in these songs, I can assure you that it’s not all that important. What’s important is that these are some of the most wonderfully weird, not to mention beautiful, songs recorded this side of Captain Beefheart and Tom Waits.
All the while, Mangum creates a strange and magical world (the Two-Headed Boy lives in a jar, at least sometimes) and wanders through it strumming his guitar, occasionally disorting it (as on the incomparably awesome “Holland, 1945”) and just generally going nuts. The world of In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is analgous to the magical underground in Pan’s Labrynth; it is a retreat from the madness of the real world and Mangum immerses himself in it 100%, singing “I will spit until I learn how to speak,” on “King of Carrot Flowers Pts. 2 and 3”. He enters his own little universe and walks through it like a child. No wonder the guy went a little funny in the head after making this album.
Granted, Mangum’s voice might grate on the nerves of some, but it’s perfect for the weird sonic texture of the album. He elongates vowel sounds to an impressive degree and lets them float up into the ether over the bowed saw (I think that’s what it is) on “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea.” Mangum’s breath control is unrivaled and, if you don’t believe me, try singing along to “Holland, 1945” and see if you’re not exhausted at the end of it. Trust me, you will be. And while some listeners might be turned off by Mangum’s howls of “I am listening to hear where you are,” on “Two-Headed Boy”, I submit to you that maybe those people don’t need to be turned on in the first place.
There’s an odd and wondrous beauty to In the Aeroplane Over the Sea that’s hard to describe to people who haven’t heard it. It’s entirely self-contained, not really a concept album like the Decemberists’ The Hazards of Love, but unified by a unique voice and a truly gifted and bizarre imagination. Jeff Mangum recorded a complete dream, left it to the world, and disappeared. If you read this and know where he is, beg him – beg him – to make more music. The world needs more stuff like this and less stuff that VH1 likes. Also, in case I haven’t made this clear: Amanda Palmer should be punched in the fucking face.