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Neutral Milk Hotel’s ‘In the Aeroplane Over the Sea’ is a modern masterpiece

In 1997, Jeff Mangum wrote one of the most deeply emotional and sonically beautiful albums ever made

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The cover of “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea” depicts a surrealistic image of what appears to be a be a woman with a tambourine head and a boy. Much like the lyrics of this album, the style is traditional, yet the content is largely interpretive.

I’d like to start off this review by saying that it took me a while to enjoy this album.

Last summer, I heard people hyping this up as one of the best albums of the century that everyone needed to hear. It has accrued a massive amount of critical acclaim and popularity over the years and is considered by many to be a modern classic, so I thought, “Why not?”

On my first listen, I wasn’t too impressed. The compositions and production were pretty good, but I couldn’t stand the lead singer’s voice. Additionally, the songs kind of dragged on and felt tired by the end of the album.

Because of this mixed experience, I never really felt inclined to return to the album—until now. And oh boy, am I glad I did.

Neutral Milk Hotel formed in 1989, consisting of frontman and primary songwriter Jeff Mangum(who I will refer to frequently throughout this review); more members would join later, but for most of Neutral Milk Hotel’s lifespan, it was only Mangum. After releasing a few demo tapes throughout the early ‘90s, Mangum released an EP(Short Album) titled “Everything Is” in 1994. This EP is an extremely abrasive and lo-fi with both punk and psychedelic elements mixed in.

Neutral Milk Hotel’s next release was the 1996 album “On Avery Island.” On this album, the sounds of psychedelia and folk occurring on his previous works are enhanced and improved upon, making for a more polished release. Even though this is a great album with many solid tracks, it lacked cohesiveness and felt like a collection of tracks just put together on an album— nothing more, nothing less.

Fortunately, “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea” has the conceptuality that “On Avery Island” lacks. The lyrics on this album are transcendently exceptional. Even after countless close listens, this album has proven extremely difficult to describe conceptually. My best attempt would be to sum it up as a sort of sexual fever dream about the Holocaust. Mangum brings very heavy themes of finding beauty in spite of suffering, sexuality’s relation to childhood, and using imagination as a form of escapism. Mangum wrote these lyrics after reading “The Diary of Anne Frank,”  shown by the many lyrics alluding to this text. “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea” is a roller coaster of emotion, as most songs are incredibly grim, yet there is always quite a bit of optimism infused into the lyrics and the instrumentals.

The album opens up on a really strong note with the three-part song, “King of Carrot Flowers.” “Pt. 1” features some well-implemented double-tracked vocals from Mangum, an inviting acoustic guitar, and a touch of extremely tasteful accordions incorporated near the end of the first verse. On this track, Mangum does a fantastic job of setting the tone for the album that lies ahead, with beauty and darkness being juxtaposed lyrically and instrumentally.

The first leg of this song wraps up and transitions into “King of Carrot Flowers Pt. 2.” This track starts off pretty minimal, with nothing but an organ, a guitar, and Mangum’s now famous (and/or infamous) line, “I love you, Jesus Christ.” Mangum’s voice draws out each word in this line as long as humanly possible and repeats it in a near mantra-like fashion as the track picks up. As guitars, horns, and drums enter the mix, the track builds and builds and builds and builds until it reaches its glorious release, coming in the form of the “King of Carrot Flowers Pt. 3.”

“Pt. 3’s” instrumental is nigh punk-esque in its speed and ferocity. Mangum’s voice is nearly drowned out in the massive wall of distortion backing his vocals, but he manages to match the energy put forward by the instrumental. With an opening track this exceptional, you’d think that Neutral Milk Hotel set too high of a bar for themselves too early, but to my amazement, Mangum continually hits the listener with superb track after superb track.

While the title track doesn’t have the same build and release structure as “King of Carrot Flowers,” it is thoroughly gorgeous. Mangum’s voice dances around the 6/8 instrumental, while very spectral lo-fi strings diddle away in the background (note: keep in mind that these strings share a striking similarity to the strings on Arcade Fire’s 2005 track “Neighborhood #4 [7 kettles],” just goes to show). It captures the feeling of melancholy so well in both its instrumental and Mangum’s poetic lyrics. The mixing on this song is absolutely fantastic as well; the instrumental feels extremely full but never overpowers Magnum’s vocals.

Two-Headed Boy” is a lot more stripped back than the first two cuts on this album, featuring only Mangum and his guitar. Although I enjoy this track for how raw and intense it is, it can get a bit repetitive by the end of the track. This is especially due to the lack of variety in the verse, chorus, and verse structure. Still, a great track that is by no means skippable, I just don’t like it as much as the other tracks on this album.

“Two-Headed Boy” transitions into the instrumental passage, “The Fool,” which provides a great breakup in the tracklisting after listening to “Two-Headed Boy.” Listeners are given an intermission between the two halves of this album, which is a smart move on Mangum’s part, as the album is a lot to take in.

This break doesn’t last too long, as after it finishes, the listener is thrown into “Holland, 1945,” which carries the same frenetic energy that appears on the tail end of “King of Carrot Flowers.” Triumphant horns and heavily distorted, rapid-fire drums and guitars punctuate Mangum’s exuberant vocal performance. Even though the lyrics are very dark, there is an immense sense of optimism that washes over the listener.

The flip side of this optimism is the very quiet, yet equally intense “Communist Daughter.” Its mix is filled with swirling lo-fi waves of noise, as Mangum steps back into his more natural lower register. It’s a very memorable track— one that strikes a perfect balance between the more experimental and lo-fi sounds of their previous album and a more traditional acoustic folk aesthetic. Just a beautiful track.

This track transitions into “Oh Comely,” which for all intents and purposes, is the emotional centerpiece of this album. While it does return to the very stripped back, acoustic sound of “Two-Headed Boy,” it is a much better track due to being much more aesthetically fitting. While “Two-Headed Boy” is a lot speedier and almost punkier, “Oh Comely” is the slowest of slow burns. This song is an extremely dour track that most greatly explores the themes of the album. It comes to an intense climax near the 6:30 mark, where Mangum warns the audience, “Know who your enemies are. We know who our enemies are.” From here, the track switches into a nearly two-minute coda that provides a beautifully dark conclusion to a beautifully dark track.

After the 8-minute dirge that was “Oh Comely,” Neutral Milk Hotel picks up the pace a bit with the much peppier “Ghost“. The very droney, distorted guitar hits ever provide a great sense of momentum and drive to the track. Mangum’s voice floats around the vocal range, as he masterfully weaves in and out of tempo like an Olympic skier. The rush of instrumentation near the end is a fantastic climax before the album closes out with “Untitled.”

Untitled” is an instrumental track that finishes the album with the biggest possible of bangs. The drums and guitars are massive, and there is a well-placed bagpipe performance that comes in near the beginning of the track. “Untitled” is an extremely powerful and triumphant track that wraps up this album in an epic bow. However there still is one track to go, and that is the acoustic encore, “Two-Headed Boy, Pt. 2.”

I see this track as sort of an epilogue to the story told on “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea,” much in the same way that “A Day in the Life” was an epilogue to the story told on The Beatles’ “Sgt. Peppers.“ Although it is called, “Two Headed Boy Pt. 2,” this track begins as a completely unique melody that is a lot more childish and lighthearted, but eventually, the song evolves into the much dourer original melody of “Two-Headed Boy.” Mangum sings a concluding stanza and the album ends then and there. Although it is a bit of an unsettling and depressing conclusion to the album, it is an extremely effective emotional gut punch to have the listener thinking about the album for hours after a listen.

This is a fantastic culmination of all things neutral milk hotel as well as a towering achievement in the world of lo-fi, folk punk, and music in general. This album is the embodiment of masterpiece and is talked. I’m so glad I gave this a second chance because this album is a beautiful, emotional, and extremely rewarding experience that listeners should check out immediately.

 

Best Track(s): “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea,” “King Of Carrot Flowers,” “Communist Daughter,” “Oh Comely,” “Two Headed Boy, Pt 2

Worst Track(s): “Two-Headed Boy

 

Rating: (Exceptional)

 

Links:

https://itunes.apple.com/us/album/in-the-aeroplane-over-the-sea/5611612

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About the Contributor
Charlie McBrian, Staff Writer

Charlie is a junior in his second year of journalism. He is a staff writer for Scotscoop and the Highlander. He is an adamant consumer of music and loves listening to and writing about it.

Twitter: @mcbriancharlie

Portfolio: https://charliemcbrian.weebly.com/

More Music Related Content: https://www.albumoftheyear.org/user/charlie17/

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Neutral Milk Hotel’s ‘In the Aeroplane Over the Sea’ is a modern masterpiece