The joke is that only 100 people bought Velvet Underground’s The Velvet Underground and Nico, but they all started a band. I think the same can be said for 1998’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea by Neutral Milk Hotel. Members of Arcade Fire and The Decemberists cite Mangum and Neutral Milk as a major inspiration. This record both brought the band into the spotlight, but also led to the band’s demise. THe added pressure from interviews and touring led to lead singer Jeff Mangum’s deteriorating mental health and exit from the band. Happily, the band briefly reunified in 2014 for a short tour and a 2014 release of old Neutral Milk tracks and other unreleased material.
Even though the band is musically interesting, Neutral Milk is really a creative project driven by Mangum. He wrote all of the tracks on Aeroplane Over the Sea and arranged a great deal of the music. The record itself was produced by fellow indie rocker and friend Robert Schneider from The Apples in Stereo. Neutral Milk is difficult to define and this record is especially eclectic. Tracks range from traditional indie, to punk, to psychedelic folk, with lyrics that are similarly complex and surreal. Trying to find a central core to this record is like deciphering the Dead Sea Scrolls. It is better to just sit back and enjoy the music for what it is.
The title track In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is the clearest influence on current indie rock. Jeff sings out in his alt country twang along side acoustic guitar, french horns and psychedelic sounds that crash and invade the song’s space. I find Jeff’s vocal on this track beautiful and sweeping. He builds to wonderful crescendos amongst desperate horns and a squealing theremin. If there are any common themes throughout the record, one is sexuality, which Mangum explores in various tracks. Much like how he sings about fingers in his mouth, he will often write about people’s bodies and exploring those bodies within the song’s narrative. The indie alt-country vibe of this song can be heard in bands such as Wilco, Sufjan Stevens and even The National in some respect. I think this is the closest thing to a complete pop track on the entire record. Moreover, I think it is the best vocal performance from Mangum on the record.
Now, the opening two tracks work together to create a surreal audio kaleidoscope. King of Carrot Flowers Pt 1 and King of Carrot Flowers Pt 2 is mesmerising, beautiful, frightening, energetic and disturbing all at once. Neutral Milk begins the track with a classic acoustic structure singing about sexuality, domestic violence and suicide. By the time you start wrapping your head around what Jeff is saying the second part comes on and launches into an 80s style punk track about Jesus. As a listener, you are left dazed; grasping at any meaning whatsoever. You may think this might be off putting, but it’s the contrary. Mangum, Koster, Spillane and Barnes create a rollercoaster where you are left on the edge of your seat, waiting to see where the track goes next. Great opening tracks, in this case a pair of tracks, give the listener insight into the album that awaits them. King of Carrot Flowers lets you know to expect anything and get ready for a wild ride.
The last track we will look at is Ghost. Mangum has talked about this track in interviews and how he was inspired by Ann Frank’s life after visiting Nazi camps in Europe. Ghost is an effort to link Frank’s life to a modern day story of a dying girl in the second half of the track. Like most of Neutral Milk’s songs, it is very challenging to find a central meaning to this song, but the experimental musicality is incredible. Ghost is a freight train that only gains power and force as the song progresses. Mangum starts the track with a blistering vocal and acoustic guitar pace that he continues to build upon throughout the track. I think this track has some of the best percussion on the record, which really punctuates Mangum’s vocals. The track ends with a frantic cacophony of guitar, horns and Jeff screaming into the mic. The pure energy of this track and light a city for a year and is irresistible.
Jeff Mangum set out to create an experimental record that simultaneously highlighted the band’s immense talent, but also spelled its doom. On the surface, the amount of genre mashing within tracks should not work, but it does. Neutral Milk is able to create a timeless work of art out of disparate pieces. The record is like a complex mosaic where Jeff is able to take shards of different themes, genres and sounds and create a beautiful picture.
Listen to In The Aeroplane Over The Sea