The myth is always going to be there for anyone who wants to take part, but expecting the music to live up to the legend may lead to a slight disappointment.
There’s something mythic and unknowable about In the Aeroplane Over the Sea; it seems to have risen beyond its status as a record, and fans of the album have cultivated a deep, intensely personal connection to it that is rare among other pieces of music. But now, 20 years since its release, what do you get when you strip away the mythos and the fervent passion? Does Neutral Milk Hotel’s second and final album hold up, not just as a cultural signifier but as a piece of music on its own merit?
Given Aeroplane’s position in the indie rock pantheon, it’s striking just how deliberately obscure and off-putting some of the music on the album actually is. More often than not, ‘90s indie rock that flirted with some degree of mainstream success was usually more streamlined than it appeared. Even the other groups in the Elephant 6 collective from which Neutral Milk Hotel was formed were strongly rooted in psychedelia, hardly an obscure concept in pop music. Yet Aeroplane is experimental pop that emphasizes the “experimental” over everything else. Robert Schneider and Scott Spillane’s horn arrangements sound like the aural equivalent of herding cats. The instrumental passages especially have a shambling feel to them, as if bandleader Jeff Mangum got everyone into a room and told them to just have some fun. When Mangum does write more fully-formed songs, they’re barely-sketched ideas, fragments that offer a portrait of its creator’s busy, scattered mind. All told, there isn’t much for the average listener to substantively gravitate towards on Aeroplane, yet that might play in the album’s favor.
Ostensibly, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is about Anne Frank. Mangum has spoken at length about his obsession with the young Holocaust victim’s diary and how frequently he read it while writing these songs, and there are allusions to Frank and the Holocaust peppered throughout the album. For just one example, “Holland, 1945” makes several allusions to Frank, both in its title and its lyrics about a girl buried next to her sister “only weeks before the guns/ All came and rained on everyone.” Yet Aeroplane is hardly a concept album. Alongside the allusions to Frank are blunt, uncanny references to sex and sexuality. The album opens with a reference to young sexual discovery, and “Communist Daughter” contains a repeated refrain of “semen stains the mountaintops.” Isolation as a result of parental neglect comes up as well: both the opening and closing songs of the album refer to distant fathers, and the two parts of “Two-Headed Boy” could be interpreted as autobiographical representations. If it sounds like a dense undertaking, that’s because it is, but listening now, it’s hard to tell whether Aeroplane pulls this gambit off.
For all of Mangum’s ambition, his work on Aeroplane lacks focus. His nervy energy bursts forth in strange and unusual ways, proclaiming an uneasy love for Jesus Christ and expressing fascination with the workings of the human body in ways that only tangentially relate to either his focus on budding sexuality or to Anne Frank. These interjections appear to be intended to jar the listener and further obscure whatever Mangum’s point may be. This brings forth one of the crucial aspects of the structure of Aeroplane that often gets overlooked: while the album is assembled as a grand epic piece of artistic expression, it plays more like a series of vignettes and ideas, some of which are more developed than others. In essence, the album is a collection of strange short stories presented as the Great American Novel of indie rock.
How, then, did we arrive at the point where Aeroplane is considered such an indie rock touchstone? In a weird way, its conflicting, vague themes have done quite a bit to elevate its perception. This was only pushed further by Mangum’s sudden withdrawal from public life shortly after the album’s release. Without its author to offer much clarity or to keep making music that could surpass this album, fans were left to their own devices to derive meaning from it. The fact that Mangum continued to resist doing anything in public only added to a sense of mystery behind Aeroplane, one that listeners seemed all too eager to eat up. As time passed, the myth of the album was only cultivated further, to the point that the effusive praise written for it became hyperbolic to the point of ridiculousness. At some point, the music became an afterthought; what was more important was the legend of In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, what it could be as opposed to what actually is.
In 2016, writer Luke Winkie offered a dissection of the Aeroplane cult that concluded that the mystery of the album would die with Neutral Milk Hotel’s most recent reunion tour. After all, what better way is there to dispel the mystery than to get up in front of a crowd and play your songs like any other band. However, the reunion seems to have done little to quell the cultish fervor behind the album. Like it or not, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is part of the indie rock canon now, and it’s not likely to go away any time soon. The myth is always going to be there for anyone who wants to take part, but expecting the music to live up to the legend may lead to a slight disappointment.