Neutral Milk Hotel – ‘In The Aeroplane Over The Sea’

Posted: December 25, 2015 in Uncategorized

By Ethan.

Having listened to Ed Sheeran’s stratospherically popular ‘Multiply’, I felt disappointed by the lack of subtlety and depth in his lyrics. I was hoping that, perhaps, its success has been down to his song-writing skills. It hasn’t. Instead, its fame is accredited to the guitar playing which takes funkiness to a new, unbearable level. Or it’s the cringe-worthy lyrics: “See the flames inside my eyes / It burns so bright I wanna feel your love”, Ed sings, as my toes curl and my teeth clench. It was at that moment that Neutral Milk Hotel walked in; lead singer Jeff Mangum’s peculiar, offensive orchestration reeled me in before I was looking further into the strange, lyrically adventurous and engaging world of ‘In The Aeroplane Over The Sea’.

The album’s opening track, King of Carrot Flowers Part 1, is intricately intertwined into Part 2, and that sublimely escalates into Part 3. As the opener settles down with chords being held on the organ, it ends and they are carried through to the second part. Following this, the layering of the track builds up thrillingly into part three; the brass family enters (trombone and flugelhorn feature), and it is at that point that my musical knowledge begins to let me down – is it the singing saw that enters? The euphonium? It’s obscure instruments like these that make it such a fun piece of music, it’s where the imagination runs wild.

The image below was on the reverse of the album’s insert in the copy of the vinyl record that I own. There isn’t an explanation as to what it is – it is simply there. I don’t want to delve into it excessively, but I certainly feel that it bears significance in the context of the album. The marching band that it depicts is a reflection of the wild and scintillating music that we hear, as they play their instruments, which is so perfectly shown in the bridge between the three parts of King of Carrot Flowers. One almost feels that the band, in this image, could be playing the bridge between parts two and three.



It would be difficult for me to pick out what, exactly, it is that causes In The Aeroplane Over The Sea to let the listener’s imagination run wild. Perhaps it’s the range of strange instruments (not musical instruments, but nonetheless, instruments) that have been used in the process of recording it. For example, what we hear quite frequently is the shortwave radio: a strange choice, to say the least. It could even be the song’s simple chord progressions or Mangum’s unconventional, and at times strained, style of singing.

In ‘Holland, 1945’, Mangum explains how a girl who he loved is “Now…  a little boy in Spain playing pianos filled with flames”, and it’s bizarre images like these that are so engaging. As listeners, we can work out that the song is most likely about Anne Frank and Jews living under Nazi oppression. However, that is all that we can decipher with relative ease from this song; the rest is open to interpretation. We are left to wonder what it is that is being described (which Sheeran’s music so desperately lacks), and it is from this that the album gains its timeless status.

What is also so attractive about Mangum’s style of song-writing is its morbidness. Also in ‘Holland, 1945’ is his description of how he is saddened by seeing “the world agree that they’d rather see their faces fill with flies”, and in ‘Oh Comely’ we see him exhibit his curiosity of unborn babies.  Perhaps it’s best, in that case, that it is Sheeran’s voice, not Mangum’s, that we hear in the charts.

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