One beloved album that has long been on our backburner for a comprehensive review is the second and final record from Neutral Milk Hotel, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. First and foremost, as many other writers with an unhealthy and limitless fixation on indie, the only indie album that tops this would have to be The Queen is Dead by The Smiths and not by much. When we ranked the top 100 greatest alternative albums of all time, this record claimed the seventh position. When we further refined our criteria to focus solely on indie rock, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea jumped to the second spot, trailing only behind The Smiths and even passing the first two Pixies albums. In the Aeroplane Over the Sea was nothing short of breathtaking upon its initial release but retrospectively, it's a tough record to put to words.
The term "legacy" often accompanies albums of profound influence and resonance. At least in the indie realm, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea stands as one of the most influential works alongside Pavement's Slanted and Enchanted, Pixies Doolittle and of course, The Queen is Dead. Yet, in terms of indie's new-age uniqueness, it eclipses them all. This ethereal and enigmatic creation stands as a testament to the boundless creativity of the unconventional indie spirit. The record continues to astonish and inspire a quarter-century after its inception, mystifying listeners with its musical complexity and inexhaustible emotional depth.
Jeff Mangum's visionary leadership and lyrical prowess define the album. His poignant and cryptic verses, infused with surreal imagery and raw emotion, are conveyed with an honestness that strikes into the listener's soul. Mangum's lyrical ambiguity, as heard on songs like Oh Comely and King of Carrot Flowers pts 1, 2 & 3, leaves listeners speechless yet profoundly moved. His coded, poetic lyrics offer room for interpretation, but one constant that unfailingly shines through is the specific emotion of each song.
Magnum and his entourage of musical misfits often make the most of very little sound yet at other times, hit listeners with a powerful wall of all sorts of sounds. Oh Comely is eight minutes of essentially just Jeff and his guitar but if you can find some of the few bootleg live performances of the song, you’ll see listeners completely silent and hypnotized by Jeff’s prowess. Jeff takes listeners on an emotional journey with leaving much lyrical matter left up to interpretation. Even in its simplicity, Mangum’s vocal might still comes through before the beautiful, yet simple guitar interlude. On the other side of the coin, the instrumental track [untitled] hits listeners with a massive, yet catchy wall of sound begging to be put on repeat.
The more well-known tracks on the album like the album titled track (which we ranked the third greatest indie rock song of all time) or Holland, 1945 showcase the groups knack for catchy, memorable indie rock tracks, still encoded with cryptic lyrics and atypical instrumentation. In re-listening to Two-Head Boy prior to writing this review, I had to remind myself that as sonically massive as the song is, somehow, it’s just Jeff and his guitar wielding all of that powerful sound.
The departure of Neutral Milk Hotel from the quiet hype following In the Aeroplane Over the Sea's release only adds to its mystique. This retreat into obscurity, while surprising, underscores the album's singular and haunting beauty. Jeff Mangum’s disinterest in mainstream success unintentionally made quite a statement to indie musicians basically saying, you make the music you make for yourself, not for anyone else. Sucess may follow, but it probably won't, so at least play you want to play. Of course though, sometimes the music resonates. Jeff’s departure from the limelight turned him more into a myth than a man before his 2008 reemergence. Some unreleased content and a reunion tour followed suit within the following years but by that point, the brilliance of the record was no secret.
In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is a timeless record, which has amassed a huge unintentional legacy. The group mixed indie rock, with folk, psychedelia, circus music, drone music and even free jazz, tied together in a tight, lo-fi bow. The record has established itself as the gold-standard for new-age indie-folk. It’s might and influence has been cited by a large amount of indie heavy hitters post release such as Arcade Fire, The Decemberists, Beirut and Bright Eyes. A book could easily be written on this album and its enduring legacy. Intense, poetic and emotional are only words that begin to describe In the Aeroplane Over the Sea.