Oftentimes in music, the most profound music is the most simple.
The first thing I noticed about In The Aeroplane Over the Sea is that the only guitar played the whole album is an acoustic. Although the bass kicks on the distortion and overdrive periodically and the drums crash chaotically, the guitar always remains a lone acoustic six-string. I think that’s part of what makes this album so beautiful: the honesty of simplicity. That being said, there is more than just the instrumental trio – we get cameos from synths, horns and even bagpipes.
The lore of the album cannot be overstated. It is the mecca of indie music – a veritable Mona Lisa. But even more so; it would be like if DaVinci only ever painted the Mona Lisa and then quit art forever. Although Neutral Milk Hotel did have an album prior to Aeroplane, the fact that their sophomore effort was their best (which is very unusual) is amplified by the fact that after this, they never made another album. How fitting, then, that the last sound heard in the recording is that of frontman Jeff Mangum standing and setting down his guitar – never to be yielded again.
Mangum is said to have been inspired to write the album after reading the diary of Anne Frank, with some veiled and not-so-veiled references to the doomed semitic teenager interspersed throughout.
It’s a personal album but not in the way you expect. It’s not biography. It’s a record of images, associations, and threads; no single word describes it so well as the beautiful and overused “kaleidoscope.” It has the cracked logic of a dream, beginning with “King of Carrot Flowers Part 1”. The easiest song on the record to like on first listen, it quietly introduces the listener to the to the album’s world, Mangum singing in a muted voice…through most of Aeroplane he sounds like he’s running out of time and struggling to get everything said.
One of the things I love about this album is its ability to continue to intrigue on subsequent listens. Much like listening to Dylan’s “Like A Rolling Stone,” each session uncovers something new, while still appreciating the previously found. If there is anything that rises to the surface each time, though, it’s the sheer urgency of the album. They way that urgency is conveyed varies from track to track, with ballads having an underlying emotional energy (the “las” and “dees” on “Oh Comely” sung after imploring us to “know all [our] enemies” is particularly haunting.) On more upbeat songs having almost frenetic vocals – see: “King of Carrot Flowers Pt. 2.” But regardless of how the energy presents itself, Mangum is always ushering us towards the album’s conclusion with a deftness few musicians in sonic history have been able to harness.
When the sporadic snare and cymbal hits have died down and the last fuzzy bass note fades, we are left with the musical and emotional core of Aeroplane, which is a man with a guitar who has something he needs to tell the world. At times it’s muddled and at times it’s veiled in metaphor, but the listener will always leave knowing, in the most ethereal of ways, exactly what it was Jeff Mangum was trying to tell them. It can’t be articulated – only felt. The album doesn’t ask specific questions about specific events. It doesn’t give any answers, either. Instead, it has us question what it even means to be human.
After all, as Mangum says in the title track – “How strange it is to be anything at all.”
Released: February 10th, 1998
Suggested by: Aaron Turley
For project details and to suggest your own favorite album, visit the intro page.