Album Review: Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea

10 Min Read

Ahsab Rahman

Neutral Milk Hotel‘s seminal album, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, is, without a shadow of a doubt, one of the greatest indie rock albums of all time. This is the band’s swan song, and definitely their magnum opus. The album is so hauntingly beautiful, raw, and powerful that it will leave you with emotions that cannot be expressed in words.

Released on February 10th, 1998, people still go crazy for this masterpiece, and its influence can be heard in the likes of Arcade Fire and The Decemberists. The album is lyrically mesmerising and has a metaphorical tone that keeps you busy with the meanings. While the songs are upbeat, the messages and words are quite depressing. This album will take you on an emotional roller-coaster ride. 

In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is a concept album loosely  based on the story of Anne Frank. The vocalist Jeff Mangum was heavily inspired after reading The Diary of a Young Girl, which depicts the life of Anne Frank during the Second World War. It feels like the singer and song-writer fell in love with Anne and wanted to save her from that disastrous situation. The lyrics in this album are so cryptic and poignant that you will be awestruck. This album has a unique sound which feels hypnotic at times.

What makes this album so special is that there is nothing like it. I have searched for similar albums but I couldn’t find anything which could capture beauty the way this album does. This indisputable classic deals with themes like love, relationship, sexuality, mortality, and so on. Every single song in this album can stand by itself. The melodies are so wonderful that you will want to sing along with them at top of your lungs. This is a non-linear story of Anne Frank, and each of the songs feels connected in some sort of way. 

The singing of Jeff Mangum in this album, in my humble opinion, is the best if you consider his discography. Starting with the opening guitar chords of King of Carrot Flowers Pt. 1, Mangum sets the tone for the album wonderfully. The song portrays relationship themes brilliantly with lyrics like, “And this is the room / One afternoon I knew I could love you / And from above you how I sank into your soul / Into that secret place where no one dares to go,” suggesting that the two share an intimate relationship. Tying it with Anne’s story, Jeff could also mean that he’s reading Anne’s diary. Sinking into her soul might mean that Jeff is reading the book and unveiling her secrets. The song is followed by King of Carrot Flowers Pt. 2 & 3, which connects beautifully with Pt. 1, and begins with Jeff Mangum confessing his love for Jesus Christ. The use of electric guitars and demented horns go perfectly with this song. 

Next, the title track is gorgeous, melodic, and outstanding in many ways, and the song is believed to be written completely about Anne Frank. This is one of my favourite songs from the album. The lyrics are so heartwarming that you cannot help but think about Anne’s situation, and how she felt at that time. “And one day we will die / And our ashes will fly from the aeroplane over the sea” — refers to the ultimate message of this album, of leaving something behind when you’re gone. A person’s ashes are being thrown into the sea, leaving a part of them in this world, even after their death. And in this case, it is of Anne Frank’s, who, despite dying, left behind something meaningful and influential that triggered Jeff to create this album. “How I would push my fingers through / Your mouth to make those muscles move” is another wonderful line where Jeff metaphorically meant that he pushes his fingers through the pages of the book. He makes her speaking muscles move by moving his fingers through the pages.

This song is followed by Two-Headed Boy, which is another excellent example of Jeff Mangum’s masterful song-writing. The words in this song mostly allude to Anne Frank’s isolation while hiding from the Nazis. It can also be interpreted as Jeff’s growing feeling of regret after the success of Neutral Milk Hotel. “We will take off our clothes / And they’ll be placing fingers through the notches in your spine” refers to the time when in the dark, hiding from planes, Two-Headed Boy and Anne Frank will have an intimate connection between them. This might also mean that Jeff is removing the clothes (cover) of the book, or the diary of Anne Frank, and placing fingers on the spine might refer to steadying the book while he reads. The song ends with a gentle hum that I really like. It feels like you were on a journey, or in an aeroplane. It feels surreal and otherworldly at times. 

The Fool is an instrumental that feels somewhat like funeral music — it’s sad. It seems like the marching of the military, quite possibly referring to the transition part of the album that deals with subject matters like WWII and Anne Frank. The title might simply mean the foolishness of militarism. Holland, 1945 is another song that is heavily inspired by The Diary of a Young Girl. When Mangum sings, “One evening in 1945 / With just her sister at her side / And only weeks before the guns / All came and rained on everyone,” you cannot help but think about the scenario in your head. This album heavily instrument driven, preventing it from becoming a straight up depressing album. 

Communist Daughter is a track that basically deals with sexuality, which is yet another subject matter of the album. Oh Comely is 8 minutes of absolutely brilliant lyricism. One of the most interesting facts about the song is that it was recorded in a single take. Here, Mangum expresses his desire to save Anne Frank by going back to that time with some sort of time machine. The song-writing is terrific. When Mangum sings “I know they buried her body with others / Her sister and mother and five-hundred families / And will she remember me fifty years later? / I wished I could save her in some sort of time machine,” you can feel the pain in his voice, the agony of not being able to save Anne during WWII. 

Ghost is another beautiful song with Anne Frank references here and there. When he goes deee-dee-dee-dee-dee-dee, I cannot resist singing along with him, to be honest. Untitled is the second instrumental of the album, and has its own unique flavour. As I have previously mentioned, this is such an album that you cannot pick one specific track and say, “This one is the best.” Every single track is unique in its own way. 

The album closes with the song Two-Headed Boy Pt. 2, which has a soft and gentle hum that makes it a perfect closer for this masterpiece. “And in my dreams you’re alive and you’re crying” depicts how Anne is alive through her diary, and Jeff is inspired by it so much that he ends up creating this magnificent album. The song ends with the sound of a guitar hitting the floor, referring to the fact that this might be Mangum’s finale, and guess what, it is. What a way to put the mic down. In The Aeroplane Over The Sea is, in my opinion, one of the greatest albums ever made, and my abysmal review cannot do it justice.

I highly urge everyone to give this album a try. Trust me, you won’t be disappointed.

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