A great start point for any indie initiate, to call Neutral Milk Hotel’s In The Aeroplane Over the Sea a seminal work in for 90s indie rock would be to do the album a disservice. In a sense, NMH invented the structure, the tropes, and illuminated the path that indie rockers have been taking since then. Much of the great (and less than great) music that has come out on indie and DIY labels and seen mainstream success in the last few years is beholden to the voodoo Jeff Mangum get up to on that disc.
While it’d be criminal to ignore the early work of NMH, On Avery Island is a bit of a deep cut for the uninitiated. Uneven and a bit shaky, there are moments of real genius and beauty on their first full length (“Naomi” especially is a stand out). Still, those seeking safe passage from certified square to hip cat might be cautioned to start later, with the more confident and self-assured Aeroplane.
Both timeless and anachronistic, Aeroplane is a fuzzed out, twisted lo-fi pop masterpiece, meant to be played loud and celebratory. The “pop” label took me awhile to come to; it squirms in your hands and resists categorization. The snotty, rambunctious punk of “Holland 1945” seems at odds with the folk psychedelica of “Two Headed Boy,” and yet it feels remarkably organic and of a piece. Whether he’s playing a lonely drunken waltz as on “Oh Comely” or bashing his guitar to splinters on “King of Carrot Flowers Pts. 2 and 3,” the voice, intensity, and sheer triumphant melodicism never wavers. The core of the album is unadulterated hooks. It’s pop alright, mutated and almost unrecognizable, but still pop.
At the center of it, rising up through the fuzz and those gorgeous horn arrangements is Mangum, singing in that strained, resonant voice. To say no one sings like Jeff Mangum would obviously be hyperbole, but the fact is, that voice is so distinct, like a dustbowl carnival barker singing Indian raga. Hearing him wail wail “I LOVE YOU, JESUS CHRIST” on “The King Of Carrot Flowers Pts 2 and 3” is like gospel for malnourished suburban kids; it blurs the line between the spiritual and secular without ever being tongue in cheek or ironic.
His lyrics are pure abstraction: utterly inscrutable, at times moving, other times chilling, always sincere. Much has been made of the supposed narrative of Mangum singing to his love, the reincarnated soul of Anne Frank (now in the body of a little Spanish boy) but I feel this is a red herring and that the album celebrates the surreal as emotionally resonant in a way that defies narrative.
Listen to “Oh Comely:” it’s over 8 minutes long and almost dada with lines like “Your father made fetuses with flesh licking ladies.” Still, when he rumbles the line “know all your enemies, we know who your enemies are,” there’s a feeling of real menace and heartbreak.
Aeroplane, idiosyncratic and off-putting and yet simultaneously sublime, remains a legacy virtually unrivaled in indie rock. Much of this owes to Mangum’s much spoken-about personal breakdown and how thoroughly he was removed from the pop landscape. We were subsequently left with this unfathomable artifact, this joyous record of some of the strangest, most haunting pop songs you could ever hear. Required listening.