20 years ago, the band Neutral Milk Hotel released In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, an album that later became a beloved cult classic.
Although most of the ‘90s was dominated by the caustic sounds of grunge or the sarcastic humor of alt-rock, an underdog began to emerge when Neutral Milk Hotel released its first album–On Avery Island–in 1996. The band really gained traction with their sophomore effort, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea.
With its quirky instrumentation, like a plethora of horns arranged by Scott Spillane and Julian Koster’s addition of singing saws, the phrenetic and urgent drumming by Jeremy Barnes, and the jaunty nature of some of the tunes, it seems bound to be a fan favorite in the world of indie music. But the songs are more carefully crafted than their relatively lo-fi production suggests. Songs like the title track are almost bursting with sound by the end, but the very next track, “Two Headed Boy Pt. 1” is a Jeff Mangum (the frontman of the band) solo affair between him and his guitar. The songwriting is perfectly in sync–with the instrumental complementing the lyrics, and the lyrics complementing the instrumental in order to get just the right tone and feel.
Though the songs are catchy and musically engaging, the lyrics really steal the show. They tell a surreal story that weaves in and out, transitioning from subject to subject and back with imagery that is vivid and jarring at times–there are religiously imbued snakes, a boy with two heads trapped in a jar, references to Holocaust victim Anne Frank, and much more. Mangum creates a tapestry with seemingly unrelated topics that surprisingly deepen each other’s meanings.
The written lyrics certainly convey a great deal of emotion and meaning, but his earnest and charmingly amateur delivery really allows them to hit home in a powerful way. These songs are not only a peek inside the way Mangum sees the world, but they also give us great insight into our own. The prevailing message throughout all of the songs is that, yes, the world can be terrible, but it’s also overwhelmingly beautiful. So many artists are willing to show us one or the other–the beauty or the horror–but few are so skilled as to put both on display at the same time.
The story of Neutral Milk Hotel is a small bright spot in the history of music. These four guys created something that they felt passionate about, free from concerns about what would lead to success and fortune, and audiences happened to fall in love with it. We’re so lucky that the cream of the crop rose to the top all on its own. In the Aeroplane Over the Sea pulls no punches, but it doesn’t leave you in the dark, either. The history of Neutral Milk Hotel kind of went in that direction, too. After giving us this wonderful and life-changing album, Jeff Mangum, the heart and soul of the band, became overwhelmed by the attention, and he no longer publicly releases music. The very same fame that allowed such a great breadth of people to share in something so wonderful also ended up taking it away. But that’s show business for you.