On October 14th, 1997, a man and his guitar took the stage at 40 Watt Club in Athens, Georgia. “My name is Jeff…” he said softly into the microphone. “I’m in this band called Neutral Milk Hotel… This is a song that we put on our new album.” He strummed his guitar. “It’s called ‘Two-Headed Boy.’” He jested with the crowd to loosen up. Then he began, strumming softly but quickly, pensively. He opened his mouth and the first verse rolled out calmly, like poetry, before he reached the first chorus, singing “I am listening to hear where you are!”
Jeff Mangum was the lead singer of the band Neutral Milk Hotel, a folk-rock band from Georgia. However, the genre and origin city doesn’t begin to describe the music.
In 1998, four months after his performance in Athens, Mangum and his band released the album “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea.” The odd name matched the odd band and the odd singer-songwriter it came from.
And yet, the LP can only be described as loaded with musical oddities, lyrical mysteries, and emotional power. It continues to enchant listeners today, some 20 years later this month. There are also those who utterly despise it. I count myself among the enchanted.
What is “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea” (often abbreviated ITAOTS) about? The simple answer, somewhat confusingly, is Anne Frank– yes, the Anne Frank who hid from the Nazis while maintaining youthful optimism in her journal, only to be found and exterminated alongside 12 million of her fellow Jews and others in the Holocaust. Her story and spirit are alluded to throughout the album, but this story only scratches the surface.
ITAOTS begins with a stout acoustic guitar, strumming a simple chord pattern in “The King of Carrot Flowers (pt.1).” Soon, Mangum’s voice resounds in both ears, telling what seems to be a strange childhood story. This story, the voice reveals, is both whimsical and dark, recounting “the room, one afternoon I knew I could love you,” alongside the “mom [who] would drink until she was no longer speaking” and the “dad [who] would dream of all the different ways to die. Each one a little more than he could dare to try.”
From beginning to end, the album is a crucible of the extremes of emotion, from childish optimism to brutal cynicism. Mangum’s lyrics are strange, eclectic, and poignant. The songs are packages of literary material that are a new experience every time they are opened. The motifs throughout the album vary from the Victorian cover art, to World War II and Anne Frank. Musically, fundamental components like strum patterns and chord progressions are not overly complicated, but they are embellished with fuzzy effects, Mangum’s iconic voice, and various brass accompaniments.
The title track encapsulates this description. The vocals declare that, indeed, “one day we will die, and our ashes will fly from the aeroplane over the sea, but for now we are young, let us lay in the sun and count every beautiful thing we can see.” From the whimsical lyrics the song turns to the repulsive, as Mangum’s voice describes “How I would push my fingers through your mouth to make those muscles move”. The song and the album are like an ‘aeroplane’, gliding over the ocean, dipping and spinning in unpredictable patterns with the wind.
Next, the listener is confronted solely with a guitar and Mangum’s gripping voice in the aforementioned “Two-Headed Boy,” perhaps the most notable track of the album. “There’s no reason to grieve,” Mangum sings. “The world that you need is wrapped in gold silver sleeves, left beneath Christmas trees in the snow.” What does this mean? I don’t know. How does it make me feel? Sad, joyous, scared… all at once.
The album transitions to its most upbeat song, “Holland, 1945.” Of course, it is about the Jewish girl “born with roses in her eyes,” who was discovered by the Germans and brought to her death from that country in that year. The lyrics express personal grief for Anne Frank, and frustration with a world full of conflict and genocide, singing “It’s so sad to see the world agree that they’d rather see their faces filled with flies, all when I want to see white roses in their eyes.” Why are we fighting? It seems to ask. Why can’t we see the roses?
The frustration and grief of “Holland, 1945” is met with positivity in the later song, “Ghost.” Again, drawing on the story of the murdered Anne Frank, Mangum considers that “I know that she will live forever, [her soul] goes on and on and she goes. And now she knows she’ll never be afraid!” Anne Frank may be passed, but her story and spirit of optimism live on forever, and she doesn’t have to be afraid anymore.
The album concludes with “Two-Headed Boy (pt.2),” a poignant folk piece with some of Mangum’s best vocals and deepest lyrics. The song questions God and the universe. “When we break, we’ll wait for our miracle” Mangum sings, “God is a place where some holy spectacle lies. When we break, we’ll wait for our miracle. God is a place you will wait for the rest of your life.”
The article you are reading reflects a personal experience– something guaranteed when listening to “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea,” whether it is positive or firmly negative. The album has come to be symbolic of the “hipster,” the “indie,” the “non-mainstream,” which is looked upon with approval by some and utter distaste by others.
Whatever your thoughts, whatever your opinions, “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea” will surely leave you wondering “How strange it is to be anything at all.”