Monday, February 11, 2008

Turn Back the Clock: Neutral Milk Hotel

In the Aeroplane Over the Sea
Original Release Date: February 10, 1998

Ten years ago Jeff Mangum, virtually unknown outside certain circles, released his definitive statement on love, loss, longing, passion, cruelty, and beauty. In this, the first installment of a new recurring feature, NQL examines an album commonly held to be one of the best of our time. Born of the prolific Elephant 6 recording collective, Neutral Milk Hotel's In the Aeroplane Over the Sea stands as testament to one man's vision, creativity, and curiosity. The true definition of a cult album, Aeroplane's reputation has only grown since its 1998 release, and with each new generation of seekers, Aeroplane will surely find a new audience with fresh perspectives. What follows is Matt Farra's perspective on a pop music landmark.


In March of 2003, I (and, for that matter, most of America) was a little late in discovering one of the most important albums of the 1990s. At that point in my life, I was aware of Pavement and the Pixies, and I had even seen Guided by Voices on more than one occasion. However, I was more fixated on what I thought at the time was the “indiest music” in the world: Modest Mouse and Built to Spill. I was young, I was immature, and for some reason I assumed that rock (sans the aforementioned bands) took a nap during the late 90s. I thought I was open-minded and that my musical inklings were expanding. However, my tastes weren't that much different from my high school obsessions with that rebellious Pearl Jam and their zany frat brothers The Dave Matthews Band. But everything changed during my first spring break in quite some time that didn’t involve the world's largest nightclub. The story began on a car ride from Louisville to Ft. Myers, Florida. As I was flipping through my 124-disc CaseLogic (which is much bigger than its modern equivalent, the iPod Nano), I came across a CD that my friend burned for me earlier that year. While it turns out that this CD was In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, I didn’t know the name of the artist or album because my friend used his CD label kit to print an image of a polar bear falling through ice along with the title “Fuck the Fucking Bear.” When that's the image on a CD, you don’t really have any expectations going in. But, then again, back in 2003, why should I have known about Jeff Mangum and his musical madness? If the world of rock didn’t care, why should a guy who was waiting for A More Lonesome, More Crowded West give a shit. Well, in the next forty-plus minutes, all that changed. During the initial spin, somewhere near Effingham County, Georgia, being unable to get year’s supply of test tube shots at Club La Vela didn't seem so bad.

We at NQL often ponder--both within our Chicago offices at 1632 N. Jay Bennett Drive and in this space--whether or not the advent of the Internet has benefited or hindered rock. Obviously, benefit or hindrance depends on whether you are a fan, a musician, or someone like me, who makes a decent wage stealing and promoting other people’s work. Back in February of 1998, just as this website was getting its domain legs wet and long before the rest of the Board and I arrived, NQL posted a “Not So Very Good Review” of Neutral Milk Hotel’s second LP. While at the time our forefathers may not have shared our superior ability to appreciate and dissect indie music, at least they were seven years ahead of god's gift to rockcrit's decision to review In the Aeroplane Over the Sea and award it a perfect score. (NQL has yet to come across an album that deserves a score equivalent to our scale's Very, Very Good rating. However, this could change in early April when NQL’s surrogate children, Tapes N’ Tapes, release their sophomore album Walk It Off. Thanks go out to our good friend and cult hero Jimmy Valpo, who is so good at torrents that he has already heard the follow-up to Destroyer's yet-to-be-released Trouble in Dreams.)

Before discussing the intricacies and finer points of Aeroplane, I want to make it clear that this album has been a very important player in the last five years of my life. Every music fan should have a couple of albums that they can listen to at any occasion. One of those, for me, is Aeroplane. This album is the dad I always wanted. It’s the wicked mistress that I can’t leave. When I listen to the album today, it still feels new, warm, and unknown. Many albums are enjoyable because they are easy to grasp--either in sound or spirit--while others you derive pleasure from because they take you back to a certain point in your life. For instance, I could tell you exactly where I was when I first heard Kid A, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, or Separation Sunday, just to name a few. (I still blame Kid A for my bombing the LSAT in the fall of 2000 because I played “Everything in Its Right Place” roughly forty-five times that night.)

Aeroplane begins and ends with the visions and poetry of the elusive Jeff Mangum. And while NQL is celebrating the significance of Aeroplane, we would be doing you (i.e., you) a disservice by ignoring the band’s path, or lack thereof, after this album. What made a man decide to tour one time in support of his masterpiece and then just walk away? Neutral Milk Hotel had collapsed before the album even had a chance to take flight. How could this happen? Did Mangum want this to happen? Is the mere act of creation success in itself? Is this album revered in the indie world because of its premature death? If you are reading this article, which you are if you are reading this sentence, you are keenly aware of the emotion, power, and rage contained within this album. I don’t need to interpret, break down, or analyze “The King of Carrot Flowers” because it’s been done a thousand times already. I am just trying to come to terms with the enigma surrounding this album and why I still feel so enraptured by an album whose songs I never saw played in concert from a band that hasn’t put out any new substantive material in exactly ten years. I just don’t get it!

But would these feelings I have toward Aeroplane be as strong today if Mangum and company had attempted to continue what they created in 1998? While we will never know, on this 10th Anniversary of one of indie rock’s greatest albums, remember that Mangum’s stories never ended, that the images of Candyland never stopped, and that Aeroplane is as relevant today as it was back in 1998. I don’t know if I will live to see Neutral Milk Hotel perform again, and that really doesn’t matter to me anymore. As Mangum foreshadows in “Two-Headed Boy”, “There is no reason to grieve / the world you need is wrapped in gold silver sleeves… / and I will take you and leave you alone.” Unlike many of my friends, I don’t find myself comparing this masterpiece to current artists or albums. While the lo-fi influence is seen in numerous bands today, I don’t hear or think Aeroplane like I do with Daydream Nation or Slanted & Enchanted--perhaps because those two albums have been emulated countless times but no one has even come close to replicating Mangum's opus. Maybe slacker posing and guitar wankery are easier to copy than out and out intellectualism and emotional honesty. Furthermore, this album isn’t 1998 or 2003 or 2008--it’s whatever you damn-well want it to be!

It has been almost five years since my journey to Florida and I bet I haven’t gone two months without listening to Aeroplane. Each time I hear Mangum open up and sing, “When you were young / you were the king of carrot flowers”, I prepare myself for a wave of energy that crashes against my brain until I discover a new layer to this work of art. Ask me again in five years and I'll probably tell you the same thing.

--Matt Farra


Travis said...

My personal ITAOTS story: I'm slightly ashamed to admit that the first couple of times I listened to this album, and I had honestly missed the hype on it, I skipped past The King of Carrot Flowers before Jeff could finish the stultifying opening "I Love You Jesus Christ/Jesus Christ I Love You Yes I Do". I knew nothing about this band, so I thought this was going to be some hamfisted ironic song, or the dude really loved JC, and if I wanted to hear someone sing about Christ Jesus, I'd go to church...or turn on the radio and listen to some Creed. If I had allowed NMH the benefit of the doubt enough to hear the next lines "And On The Lazy Days/The Dogs Dissolve And Melt Away" (and if these aren't the correct lyrics, please please, never let me know) which is one of my favorite lyrics of all time, I would have had a little more time with what has wound up being one of my favorite songs of all time.

Sean said...

The first song off Aeroplane I ever heard was "Oh, Comely". It was served up from, of all places, Launchcast (Yahoo) internet radio, a constant study companion at the Learning Resource Center of Saint Louis University circa 2002. My attention gradually slid from whatever book I was reading until I was staring at the wall with chills down my spine in that way that happens when you discover something truly unique. Then hearing "Your father made fetuses with flesh licking ladies/While you and your mother were asleep in the trailer park." Not long after I was in love with this album. Nice post, Matt.

Blake F. Ecksnow said...

Does anyone know anybody that still listens to Launchcast? After I kept getting Moby every fifth song--I stopped using it.

The Dong Machine said...

I remember a certain friend of mine calling this "gay" when I listened to it...and now it is one of his favorite albums of all time...ironic. I too first heard this on Launchcast, but King of Carrot Flowers Pt. 1. Launch then went on trying its hardest to convince me that I loved John Mayer, even though i repeatedly blocked every song that popped up. I feel that he just continued to write shitty songs in order for there to be an endless supply of them in my Launchcast. You win this time, John Mayer.

Jim P. said...

WTF? I thought this post was going to be about 1987 Topps. It makes sense though - for me, ITAOTS is the 1987 Topps of albums. I should clarify. But I will not.

I had heard ITAOTS many times before the switch turned on: you know, that thought of "huh - this is really good" that you have when an album goes from something to something better? That. I know exactly when it happened, which is how I know this is one of my favorite albums. There are few albums whose switchy-switch change moments I can remember exactly. For ITAOTS, it was in London during the daytime in a dorm room and I was drinking a pint can of Stella. Ironically, or not, I also remember my first Stella.

Which brings me back to 1987 Topps. Remember the Bo Jackson? It was awesome - he was backing up to catch a fly ball, "Future [Injury Risk]" in multicolors across the bottom? After the picture was taken, he probably scaled a wall or threw out a runner three states away or something. My favorite 1987 Topps card. So I guess that means the 1987 Topps Bo Jackson of ITAOTS would be my favorite lyric. It's "Indentions in the sheets/where their bodies once moved but don't move anymore".

Alex said...

I remember that Bo Jackson card. Another favorite 87 Topps card of mine was the Mark McGwire rookie. It's pretty unassuming but that was the year he blew up and hit 49hr as a rookie and he's just up there to bat waiting for a pitch to blast out of the park. Of course, this was way before I knew he was a cheater.

87 Fleer was great too, they had a glossy coat and a sort of aqua background. My Ozzie Smith from that year is still one of my favorite cards despite only being worth $1.75.

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