In 1998, Neutral Milk Hotel released their second and final album In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, which I firmly believe is one of the greatest records ever written. The record, which has never really been classified as belonging to one genre or other, has eleven songs and is forty magical minutes long. The songs seamlessly flow from one into the other, which means you’d be doing the album a great injustice by not listening to it from front to back in its entirety.
Upon first listen, I think the instruments are what stand out most, with songs such as “Ghost”, where unusual instruments are used. In the Aeroplane Over the Sea includes sounds from, but not limited to, zanzithophone, flugelhorn, singing saw, and uilleann pipes. And whilst a highlight of the album will always be the strange orchestra, the main focus remains on Magnum’s guitar strumming. What I find particularly beautiful is that the guitar is not necessarily complicated or revolutionary. Magnum uses simple chord progressions, allowing the complexity of the songs to come from all the other instruments. Even in the songs with little to no other instruments, such as “Communist Daughter”, Magnum does not feel the need to prove anything, staying true to the simplicity found in the bigger, louder songs.
And while no one can talk about In the Aeroplane Over the Sea without talking about the music, I find that the lyrics are truly what makes this album the greatest record I’ve ever listened to. What makes it so beautiful is the complexity of it all. While there is a sort of red thread throughout the imagery and concepts of the album, there are still so many lines that I could never possibly make sense of. One that has recently caught my attention is in the eponymous song of the album which goes: “But now we keep where we don’t know / All secrets sleep in winter clothes / With one you loved so long ago.” What does this mean? Fuck if I know, but it’s beautiful nonetheless.
Besides lines that I don’t think I could ever attribute meaning to, Magnum references Anne Frank throughout the album. It is no secret that Magnum was immensely moved by the diary of Anne Frank, dreaming of travelling back in time to save her, as referenced in “Oh Comely”: “I wish I could save her in some sort of time machine.” In that same song, he sings: “And I know they buried her body with others / Her sister and mother and 500 families.” One of the faster songs, “Holland, 1945”, seems to be one big reference to Frank, the first verse containing the lines, “But then they buried her alive / One evening 1945 / With just her sister at her side.” It is a well known fact that Frank and her sister were sent to a concentration camp in 1944, dying in February or March of 1945 shortly before the end of the war.
It’s not only the imagery and concepts of the lyrics that make them so capturing, it’s also the way they’re written; Magnum apparently being a fan of alliteration. Examples include “Cars careening from the clouds” (“Communist Daughter”), and “And on the lazy days / The dogs dissolve and drain away” (King of Carrot Flowers pts. 2 & 3). “Oh Comely” is rich with lines that play with consonants, such as “Your father made fetuses with flesh licking ladies” or “So make all your fat fleshy fingers to moving, / And pluck all your silly strings, bend all your notes for me. / Soft silly music is meaningful magical.” I could probably go on forever talking about the lyrics of this album, but alas.
Neutral Milk Hotel, to my deepest regret, announced that they were going on indefinite hiatus in mid-2015. In the Aeroplane Over the Sea has been an influence for numerous musicians, most notably (for myself, that is) Bright Eyes, Arcade Fire, and Brand New. I doubt that there will ever be any other record that can come close to being in the same realm as In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, a record that can figure out a way to combine strange and beautiful lyrics with simple guitar and an outlandish orchestra. It does not only play with instruments, but with tempo, with structure and texture of music. It is a fearless record, abiding by no one’s laws of music. I read once that someone called it “haphazardly graceful”, the album shifting from intimate, slower songs, to barreling forward to songs bursting at the seams with instruments, ready to topple over. I think, if I had to compress this album into one line, I’d have to quote Magnum himself, who ends “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea” with “Can’t believe how strange it is to be anything at all.”