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ISSUE 119 VOL 9 PUBLISHED 11/18/2005

Neutral Milk Hotel remains relevant: Domino Records reissues "In the Aeroplane Over the Sea"

By Peter Farrell
Variety Editor

Friday, November 18, 2005

Last August, the sunny, psychedelic indie-pop band the Olivia Tremor Control (OTC) played a series of sold out concerts at New York City’s infamous Bowery Ballroom. About an hour into first show on Aug. 2, a scruffy young man in an olive green baseball cap galloped onstage and sang a rabble-rousing rendition of the OTC’s “I Have Been Floated.”

The audience responded to this man’s appearance with rapturous applause. Grown men shed tears, strangers embraced, and record geeks the world over set the Internet ablaze with stunned commentary.

One concert attendee interviewed by the next day reported that this man’s voice “ … came from the earth, not from the heavens (as he does on the records we love). He was haunted, as if he had not sung a note in five years.”

The ostensibly hyperbolic concertgoer was surprisingly accurate. The “haunted” man onstage, Jeff Mangum, had not sung a note for five years, or at least not publicly. Following a long tour in support of the indie-rock touchstone In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, the enigmatic, fragile, and elusive former Neutral Milk Hotel front man disappeared from the public’s harsh glare and high expectations.

Despite Mangum’s vanishing act, his legacy looms large. Over the course of the past few years, indie-rock has taken several of its most important cues from the bizarre cabaret chamber-pop of In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. From the freak-folk artistry of Joanna Newsom and Devendra Banhart to the purposefully affected vocals of Clap Your Hands Say Yeah and Wolf Parade, Mangum’s influence is pervasive.

Each year, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea sells another few thousand copies, and Mangum and company gain a few more thousand disciples. In light of their consistent popularity, Domino Records just recently re-released the album in the United Kingdom. The import-only reissue – sold in both compact disc and LP formats – has been remastered and repackaged, and the spruced up sleeve features enthusiastic commentary from current indie icons Franz Ferdinand and Arcade Fire.

Of course, the extra goodies and window dressing are secondary to the tremendous songs that firmly place In the Aeroplane Over the Sea in the upper echelon of great alternative rock albums.

Opening with a sharp, deliberate, and unbelievably loud strum of an acoustic guitar, “The King of Carrot Flowers Part 1” immediately grabs the listener with its simple but effective melody. And then comes Magnum’s haunting howl, an unhealthy, ugly instrument that bleats in and out of tune. Magnum’s voice is the band’s focal point, the grotesquely beautiful undercurrent to the simple ‘60s melodies that propel the group’s best songs.

It is also the vehicle for the surrealistic lyrics that drive the record and demand repeated attention. Mangum imbues each track with startling imagery, an absurdist cloud cover for the slices of realism that slither beneath the surface. No one may be sure who, or what, the “King of Carrot Flowers” is, but a dark past undercuts the ostensibly nonsensical wordplay.

After all, when Mangum sings, “And Mom would stick a fork right into daddy’s shoulder, and Dad would throw the garbage all across the floor, as we would lay and learn what each other’s bodies were for,” you get the idea that regal vegetables aren’t the only things on his mind.

The additional orchestration – from the accordion to the trumpet to the zanzithophone – joins Magnum’s locomotive voice, lending color to the singer’s melodic shapes. And that’s only the first song. Soon, the closing chords of the “King of Carrot Flowers Part 1” melt into the fuzzy plucked strings of the “King of Carrot Flowers Part 2-3” and Mangum’s harrowing, thrice repeated yelp of “I love you Jesus Christ.”

The “King of Carrot Flowers” suite finally ends in a haze of gauzy guitar distortion, and the album veers back into the baroque pop balladry that characterizes most of the record. In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is a gentle acoustic jaunt with a tender horn arrangement, while the emotional “Two-Headed Boy” is driven by Mangum’s voice and guitar alone.

The short instrumental interlude “The Fool” is a pleasant, spacey warm up to the incendiary “Holland 1945,” the fastest song on the record. The explosive “Holland 1945” fades into the tender lull of the “Communist Daughter.” (Although, Mangum’s cryptic refrain of “Semen stains the mountaintops” offsets the seemingly softhearted nature of the song).

Other highlights from the record include the dramatic and lengthy “Oh Comely,” and the wistful “Two-Headed Boy Part 2,” in which Mangum makes his most explicitly desperate declaration of love: “I’ll love you for the rest of your life (when you’re ready).” The record rides this emotional high note to the end, and appropriately, the final note of In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is the lone, plaintive strain of Mangum’s voice and guitar.

Since Mangum pulled his Houdini, fans desperate for a follow-up to In the Aeroplane Over the Sea have placed the notoriously nomadic musician in a number of places. Some reported that he was in New Jersey, New York City, San Francisco, or his hometown of Athens, Georgia. Others claim that Mangum has actually gone insane and is being treated for a variety of mental illnesses.

A rare interview granted by Mangum in 2003 dispelled most, if not all, of the rumors that continue to circulate around him. Apparently, Mangum has simply lost his muse, and will only make music when he feels inspired again.

However, most people still cling to the notion that Mangum is holed up in a ratty apartment with an even rattier acoustic guitar, composing another masterpiece which would both silence critics and trump his previous achievements.

Whether or not this is the case, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea remains a stunning testament to Mangum’s creative power, a uniquely singular artistic vision that still resonates today.

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