Monday, October 22, 2012

Neutral Milk Hotel - In the Aeroplane Over the Sea

Rewind to one of the Best Indie Rock Albums of the 1990's

When the dust settled across the music secen of the 90s, Neutral Milk Hotel's 'In the Aeroplane Over the Sea' was  recognized not only as one of the best Indie Rock albums of the 1990's, but as one of the best records ever made. 

I don't say this to snobbily provoke people who still haven't heard of this then obscure but now famous group, and I certainly don't say this to somehow stroke the ego of its frontman Jeff Mangum, whose gentle brush with quasi-fame was more than enough to scare him into seclusion, corresponding with the outside world every now and then just to tell them there will never be another Neutral Milk Hotel album. 

I say it because it's one of the few things I sincerely believe about music, and because I feel, strongly though probably naïvely, that if everybody owned In the Aeroplane Over the Sea the world might magically turn into a better place. I'm not the only one who feels this way. In fact, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea commonly inspires reactions like this in people (reactions, incidentally, which horrify its creator). 

For a very small group, the figure of Jeff Mangum brings out a level of devotion similar to that inspired by literary figures like William Blake and Walt Whitman. Like Blake, Mangum references a deeply personal mythology that roots surreal imagery in emotional realism and is built on mystical themes like reincarnation, otherworldly beings, and the holiness of freaks and outcasts. Like Whitman, Mangum's words all flow out in a rapturous stream of lines and lines. And like both writers, Mangum's work is composed equally of an enveloping compassion for people and a horror at their hatred and violence. 

One of the things that's so amazing about this album is that it's so ambitious it seems like it should have been a total, laughable failure. Using acoustic guitar, drums, a heavily fuzzed bass, bowed banjo, theremin, zanzithiphone, uillean pipes, and Salvation Army clarions of trumpet and trombone, Mangum and co. attempt an epic psychedelic folk-punk concept album about Anne Frank's life, death, and subsequent reincarnation through the art of her diary, which causes its reader to create an elaborate fantasy about forever protecting her by being reborn fused to her as a Siamese twin. And it works. 

Mangum sings about dead dogs dissolving and draining away, semen staining mountaintops, bridges bursting and twisting around, shrouded and rose-eyed ghosts watching the earth from an orbiting comet, bottled fetuses tapping on jars, their hearts filled with singing needles, couples alone in afternoon rooms pushing fingers through each others' mouths, through notches in each others' spines, into each others' souls. 

It all sounds ridiculous, but it's dead-serious and indescribably moving, because actually Mangum is singing about the horror and beauty in the world, and about transcending that horror by allowing that beauty to annihilate you. He's singing about love, but much bigger than love between a boy and a girl; he's singing about loving the world that surrounds you and even loving those who try, and succeed, to destroy you. And he's also singing about something else, something that can't really be put into words, but that is true and living and moves through his unlikely imagery and sonic tapestries, glowing brighter with each successive listening. 

Everyone I know who has this record treasures it. It has helped my friends sunk in depression, I've been to weddings where selections have been used as the first dance, I know people who want it played at their funerals. And I understand why Mangum, emphatically humble and self-effacing, must be terrified by the level of devotion this little collection of songs inspires, but I also understand that devotion. 

In a world that constantly seems crass and cheap and mean, where cynicism is the dominant philosophy and sarcasm the dominant conduct, where what matters most is showing off what you can buy, where the most popular television programs encourage us to laugh at ordinary people willingly allowing themselves to be publicly frightened and humiliated for money, this record shows you the world trembling with beauty, transparent, enveloping, able to be redeemed or destroyed by how much love you bring to it, and, ultimately, holy. Will Robinson Sheff  


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