Next year marks the twentieth anniversary of one of the most influential works of indie rock ever produced. Neutral Milk Hotel’s In The Aeroplane Over The Sea was first released in 1998 by Jeff Mangum, an independent musician from Athens, Georgia, with a passion for psychedelia and the circus, and since then Aeroplane has become something of a meme. Frequently cresting ‘top 10’ lists on /mu/, the music section of the infamous 4chan and a source of worryingly heated discussion for every musicophile with a top-knot, no matter your take on Aeroplane, you’ve got to admit it’s got something.
The first and most obvious thing to note about In The Aeroplane Over The Sea is that by any typical musical definitions, it’s really weird. Threnodic dirges rub shoulders with gruesome bagpipe lines, stomping out paeans which lead somehow into rasping ballads. The lyrical journey soaring and rising like the eponymous plane, all of it surprising and musically interesting but at the same time – and this, in my mind, is one of the really important things about this album – graphic in visceral and disturbing ways. According to the mythology that surrounds this album, Aeroplane is about Anne Frank. Songs titles like ‘Holland, 1945’, and lyrics like “and she was born in a bottle-rocket, 1929” support the idea, and while Aeroplane isn’t really about any one thing, the story of Anne Frank certainly serves as a consistent motif.
To condense Aeroplane down into one word is difficult, but one that comes to mind is ‘dreamlike’. The alternative hip-hop producer Boom Bip described Aeroplane as “the closest anyone has ever come to putting my dreams into music,” and this aspect of Aeroplane is acknowledged by Mangum in a 1997 Pitchfork interview, in which he said “a lot of the songs are influenced by my dreams.” To give an example, one of the most memorable lines in the album is “She will feed you tomatoes and radio wires /and retire to sheets safe and clean.” Something clashes in the line: tomatoes, soft and natural, and soft, clean bedsheets – indicative of childish innocence – are juxtaposed with radio wires, in all their metallic brutality. This conference of contradictory and disjointing images – which we sometimes see in dreams – represents in microcosm the way Magnum depicts the human experience.
Since Aeroplane’s release in 1998, Magnum has largely disappeared from the public eye, and rumours of a nervous breakdown persist. It’s difficult to come away from Aeroplane not at least slightly doubting the author’s sanity. In the long tradition of American artists who’ve disappeared – think Salinger or Pynchon – Magnum has been reluctant to speak much about this album, and he said in an email to a journalist in 2003 that he “just wants to be left alone.” It’s important that we respect this right, and allow him to have his peace. But 20 years on, Aeroplane hasn’t lost what originally drove the hype. It’s experimental, and weird, and most of all, difficult to exorcise from the mind or forget. Just as non-classicists should read the Iliad, or humanities students need to know about the laws of physics, non-fans of indie rock people should give Aeroplane a listen. It’s just under 40 minutes and free on YouTube. What more do you need to know.