I feel incredibly banal writing this review, because it seems like anyone who’s even remotely interested in music has heard of In The Aeroplane Over The Sea before. According to besteveralbums.com it’s the 21st most critically acclaimed album of all time. Hipster bible pitchfork.com lists it as the fourth best album of the 90s. Try this, go to a place where hipsters hang out, approach one, and ask them what their favorite album is. If they’re a poser who doesn’t care about music, chances are they’ll say In The Aeroplane...
Sometime during 1994 Jeff Magnum along with high school friends William Cullen Heart and Bill Doss formed the band Olivia Tremor Control and released their first EP California Demise. Afterwards Magnum left the group and began sleeping on friends floors, unemployed. During this time he recorded four cassettes, Pygmie Barn In E Minor, Invent Yourself A Shortcake, Beauty, and Hype City Soundtrack under the name Milk. The cassettes were very advant garde and weird. Two of the tracks were just spoken conversations between Magnum and his friends.
In late 1994 Magnum and whoever was around him at the time recorded the four song EP Everything Is as Neutral Milk Hotel. Frankly, it sucks. Have you ever been to a museum and wandered through the modern art gallery, wondering if any of this shit is really art? Everything Is is the musical equivalent of that. Magnum only made fifty copies and they sold poorly.
In 1996 Magnum moved to Denver, Colorado where he recorded Neutral Milk Hotel’s first LP On Avery Island. At the time, Neutral Milk Hotel was composed of Magnum, The Apples In Stereo’s Robert Schneider, The Perry Weissman 3’s Rick Benjamin, and Secret Square’s Lisa Janssen. The album sold poorly and received mildly positive critical response.
After the release of On Avery Island, the Neutral Milk Hotel as most know them formed, featuring Magnum, Scott Spillane on horns, Jeremy Barnes on drums and organ, and Julian Koster on bass, banjo, and saw. From July through September 1997 they recorded In The Aeroplane... which was released February 10th, 1998. It sold poorly on its initial release and was met with mixed critical response. Critics would later change their negative reviews to postive ones.
The album opens with “King Of Carrot Flowers Pt. 1”. The song begins with a basic, folky acoustic guitar and Magnum's obscure vocals, slowly gaining intensity until Magnum’s voice is soaring above the explosion of horns, violin, and synth. The song depicts two violently fighting parents and an incestuous pair of siblings “learning what each others bodies are for”. Some parts of the song make no sense. What’s a carrot flower or a holy rattlesnake? Other parts, however, are far to clear. I’m sure many of us can relate to Mom “drinking until she was no longer speaking” and Daddy “dreaming of different ways to die”.
The album then seamlessly transitions into “King Of Carrot Flowers Pt. 2 & 3”. Opening with an arpeggio guitar riff plucked over grainy synth chords. Magnum sings about how much he loves Jesus Christ. Fifty seconds in the song begins to increase in tempo, volume, and instrumentation, becoming more and more chaotic until it can be contained no longer and explodes at 1:40. All the while Magnum sings about floating “Inside my Mom inside a garbage bin”, and marrying a “dead dog singing and a synthetic flying machine”.
Besides being a simple acoustic song, fourth track “Two Headed Boy” is the most powerful song on the album. Magnum sings with an intensity that has complete disregard for his vocal chord health. The lyrics are nonsensical and disturbing (“And in the dark we’ll take off our clothes/And they’ll be placing fingers through the notches in your spine/And when all is breaking/Everything that you could keep inside/Now your eyes ain’t moving now”). I have absolutely no idea what he’s singing about, but he does it with such enthusiastic passion that it’s moving nonetheless.
During the last ten seconds of “Two Headed Boy” Magnum “de-de-de-dees” into the opening of instrumental track “The Fool”. “The Fool” sounds like the worlds oddest mix of carnival music and smooth jazz. It’s very weird, and by the time you really start to get into it, it’s over.
Lead single “Holland, 1945” is the most decipherable song on the album. Clearly about Anne Frank and the Holocaust, Jeremy Barnes seems to be hitting every drum and cymbal on his kit simultaneously while the backing horns add an odd ska vibe to the arrangement. Magnum proves how hard hitting his lyrics can be when he wants them to be easily understood with the opening lines “The only girl I’ve ever loved/Was born with roses in her eyes/But then they buried her alive/One evening, 1945”. It’s very touching, but at the same time it creeps me out. Every child at some point in their life has been forced to read The Diary Of Anne Frank. Most kids trudge through it and don’t give it a second thought. I know I did. I certainly did not find it a moving book. My clearest memory of the novel is the chapter where Anne discusses touching and comparing her boobs with another girl. “The only girl I’ve ever loved” seems a bit much, but somehow Magnum manages to pull it off.
However, if you thought that was bad, “Communist Daughter” outright disgusts with the lines “The communist daughter/Standing on the seaweed water/Semen stains the mountaintops”. Now semen is involved? The first time I heard it I didn’t have enough time to be disgusted before the catchy horn solo took my mind away from semen spraying over a communist child. Thankfully “Communist Daughter” is only a minute and fifty-seven seconds long.
At eight minutes and eighteen seconds long, “Oh Comely” is the longest song on In The Aeroplane... Beyond a short horn interlude the song is nothing but Magnum and his acoustic guitar. Like before, the song is rife with unfortunate sexual imagery I don’t like to think about (“Your father made fetuses with flesh-licking ladies” “While powerful pistons were sugary sweet machines/Smelling of semen all under the garden”). The sex becomes even more gruesome when juxtaposed with the touching “I know they buried her bodies with others/Her sister and mother and five hundred families/And will she remember me fifty years later/I wish I could save her in some sort of time machine”. Honestly, the song reminds me of a child molesting father who’s torn between the love for his daughter and the satanic lust he feels. It’s very unsettling. Magnum’s vocals don’t win you over this time. Regardless, it’s still extremely powerful, and great art always delivers a reaction, even if it isn’t a pleasant one.
Ninth track “Ghost” has an almost hymnal, religious feel to it. Much like Christians celebrate the life of Christ after he died, Magnum is celebrating the heaven he feels Anne Frank is deservedly enjoying. Instrumental wise Magnum’s ensemble throws everything but the kitchen sink into the mix. There's a musical saw, oboe, cymbals, drums, theremin, and synth along with the acoustic guitar and fuzzy bass. It’s a refreshing listen after the disturbing "Oh Comely".
Instrumental track “Untitled” sounds like a punk rock Irish funeral. It’s probably the only time in music history the bagpipes weren’t the most annoying sound you’ve ever heard. The synth riff in the background is really catchy, and the 8-bit noodling it goes into near the end is so compelling you’ll find yourself humming along.
“Untitled” perfectly transitions into final track “Two Headed Boy Pt. 2”. The song opens with a haunting synth melody before Magnum's vocals and acoustic guitar takes over. The beginning lyrics open with a surrealist personal plea (“Daddy please, hear this song that I sing/In your heart there’s a spark that just screams”). For the first time on the album, Magnum seems almost personal before the third stanza moves into Anne Frank-love territory again (“In my dreams you’re alive and you’re crying/As your mouth moves in mine, soft and sweet/Rings of flowers around your eyes and I’ll love you for the rest of your life”). The song ends with more random surrealism and a heartwarming stanza about he afterlife ("God is a place where some holy spectacle lies/And when we break, we'll wait for our miracle/God is a place you will wait for the rest of your life") before the final stanza switches to the melody of “Two Headed Boy Pt. 1”. After Magnum finishes singing, there’s the sound of him putting down his guitar and walking away. Then the record ends.
Overall, In The Aeroplane Over The Sea is a disturbing, moving, touching, powerful look into a crazed, brilliant mind. The lyrics shock, confuse, and disgust. Magnum’s emotional, wild vocals desperately convince you to listen while his ensemble’s arrangements accompany and intrigue. It’s one of the most unique records ever recorded, and it will continue to captivate for as long as Anne Frank’s memory lives on. A perfect four out of four.