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Album Review

In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, 25 years later


February 20, 2023

by Paige Musselman, KANM DJ

Neutral Milk Hotel’s most celebrated album In the Aeroplane Over the Sea turned 25 years old this past weekend. This is definitely one of those albums that every indie music lover has something to say about- but I think there’s so much more to say about why it has had that kind of staying power over the last quarter century. On it’s most auspicious 25th birthday, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea feels in the prime of it’s adulthood, and I think it’s more relevant than ever.

The world we live in feels much bleaker than I ever imagined it would as a child. It feels like there’s a new pointless, insurmountable tragedy happening every day, and you open your news app or even just your Instagram and there’s something new to be outraged about. As a college senior heading unto the breach of real life, I worry about what things will be like when I’m no longer being in an environment that is so conducive to human connection. Adulthood in the internet age seems lonelier than it did for generations before us. In The Aeroplane Over The Sea captures the feeling of childlike wonder and spirituality in a way that makes you feel not so alone. Jeff Mangum sincerely belting out “I LOVE YOU JESUS CHRIST, JESUS CHRIST I LOVE YOU YES I DO” on the track “King of Carrot Flowers Pts. 2 & 3” feels like a shock to the heart in today’s irony-poisoned internet culture. “Two-Headed Boy” describes a creature that could be straight out of a Guillermo Toro film, reminiscent of the kind of the thing you may have dreamt up in the dark to be afraid of as a child. This somehow turns into a song about sex, grief, and coming of age. But when the chorus swells and he sings “in the dark, we will take off our clothes and there’ll be lacing fingers through the notches in your spine and when all is breaking everything you can keep inside”, it feels like he’s describing something you’ve felt since you were a teenager and just didn’t know it. That’s the thing about Mangum- he makes the strange work, and he makes it ring true.

The many references to Anne Frank on several of this album’s tracks has long been mocked for being too corny, too weird, or even sexual (personally I hate that take). On different tracks, she is described as being buried alive and reincarnated as a Spanish boy, a ghost seemingly living inside Jeff Mangum, and he mourns his inability to go back in time and save her. In a 2008 interview with Pitchfork, Mangum describes that “ I went into a bookstore and walked to the wall in the back, and there was The Diary of Anne Frank. I’d never given it any thought in my entire life. I spent two days reading it and then completely flipped out. I spent about three days crying, and just was completely flipped-out. While I was reading the book, she was alive to me. I pretty much knew what was going to happen…here I am as deep as you can go in someone’s head, in some ways deeper than you can go with even someone you know in the flesh. And then at the end, she gets disposed of like a piece of trash. And that was something that completely blew my mind.”

Is that really such a weird, cringe, inappropriate reaction to the story of a victim of genocide? Many of us don’t bat an eye at the idea of someone being “disposed of like trash”- tragic stories are shoved in our face 24/7 via the news, the internet, and true crime podcasts with cult-like following. You kind of have to be numb- if you cried for every person who was ever a victim of a crime, you would simply never stop crying. But that empathy still sits under the surface, and Mangum is able to access it in his connection with Anne. When you think of it that way, his relationship to her starts to feel profound. It makes you feel like he, and you the listener by the extension, are seeing the world through newborn eyes. Your most primal, amorphous feelings of joy and grief seem to finally take shape through his imagination. When asked about why Anne Frank appears so much on the album, Jeff said that “I would go to bed every night and have dreams about having a time machine and somehow I’d have the ability to move through time and space freely, and save Anne Frank. Do you think that’s embarrassing?”

At its core, I think that is what makes this album stand out- it’s ability to express the most human, unfiltered thoughts and emotions and ask “do you think that’s embarrassing?” and be met with understanding, not judgement. In the Aeroplane is an album about spirituality most of all- sometimes it seems to matter less what he is saying and what it means and more that it’s being said. What is he really trying to say when he proclaims his love for Christ? Is the ghost in Ghost supposed to be Anne Frank, the girl Mangum actually saw fall from an apartment building in the 80s, or an actual ghost that was living inside his bathroom while this album was made? I’m not sure it really matters. When Mangum sings like he’s desperate just to get the words out on tracks like “Holland 1945” and “King of Carrot Flowers Pts 2&3” it feels like he’s channeling something otherworldly- maybe Anne Frank beyond the grave or even Jesus Christ himself. This album envelopes you in pure feeling, and I think that’s what has really attracted me to it over the past couple of years. When it feels like there’s so much angry, pointless noise beating down my door in real life, I can retreat into Jeff Mangum’s mind and be reminded of what it actually feels like to be human, without all the bullshit.

Listen to Paige Musselman on My Little Corner of the World, 12 pm Fridays on KANM.org

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