My Favorite Album: In The Aeroplane Over The Sea

Neutral Milk Hotel did not set out to make the greatest songs ever, and In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, their sophomore effort, was not meant to be a sweeping stroke of genius and one of the most inspiring albums of our generation. Unfortunately, that’s what it became.

Lead singer and songwriter Jeff Mangum’s inspiration was a tortuous recurring dream of a Jewish family during the Holocaust and the comfort he discovered while reading The Diary of Anne Frank. It’s almost criminal that out of something so horrific a person can create something so beautiful, and this album is a testament to the everlasting optimism of the human spirit. These just may be the most wondrous songs ever written

Parts 1, 2, and 3 of The King of Carrot Flowers are like the magnum opi of a troubled campfire singer, something so simple, so wonderful, and yet so unheard. The title track sounds like a folk song Bob Dylan wishes he could have written. The entire crux of the album can be summed up in two lines during the title track: “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/and count every beautiful thing we can see”.

Mangum’s voice is shrill, pitchy, loud, often forced, and borderline annoying. In other words, it’s perfect for conveying his sense of urgency that jumps out and is impossible to ignore. The most potent example is the slow and deliberate Oh, Comely. Clocking in at 8:18, Mangum’s shrieking voice can’t help but grip the listener as a simple guitar riff is his only accompaniment throughout the entire track. His imperfect voice also lends well to Holland, 1945, a song that sounds like it’s running away from itself.

Peppered throughout the album are experimental horns, pipes, accordion, synth, and the all-important zanzithophone. The steady march of The Fool, despite its lack of lyrics, is a well deserved respite from painful, jarring words of the previous four songs. The untitled track, also without lyrics, is perhaps the most beautiful chaotic organization of instruments on the album. It would have provided a satisfactory end to a wonderfully crafted work of art, but sadly, there was one last track.

 It seems unreasonable to wish that if Two Headed Boy Part 2 hadn’t been on the album we’d still be collecting Neutral Milk Hotel albums like prized possessions, but I can’t help but think it. The song, which is the sequel to the track on the album that is the most difficult to listen to, provides the greatest ending to an album ever conceived. Mangum brings down the musical procession and slowly croons “But don’t hate her when she gets up to leave”. At that moment he puts down his guitar, gets up, and walks right out of the studio. It’s now more of a reflection than anyone would want, for that was the last time Mangum would record any music.

 It’s very doubtful we’ll hear anything from Mangum’s imagination ever again, but for now, we have In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, and we should celebrate.

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