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Definitive Albums: Neutral Milk Hotel 'In the Aeroplane Over the Sea' (1998)

One Holy Spectacle

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In The Aeroplane Over The Sea by Neutral Milk Hotel
smalloranges/Flickr/CC by 2.0

In Search of Lost Time

When it was released in 1998, even the most reverent Neutral Milk Hotel acolyte would've blushed at predicting the lingering legacy that Jeff Mangum's second NMH LP has gone on to have. It was hardly overlooked on release: many critics (including yours truly) lauded it for its sense of invention, for its forceful, personal drama, for its dread-inducing, distorted-to-hell bass, and for its memorable songwriting.

Yet, a decade hence, and In the Aeroplane Over the Sea has clearly transcended any initial critical reading. Having acts like the upstart Beirut and the world-conquering juggernaut the Arcade Fire willingly pillaging from the record's unending bag of tricks is one thing. The fact that it's become a perennially popular, infinitely influential entry in the alternative canon is another. But the real reason words suddenly struggle to do this disc justice is because time has clearly proven that this is one of those albums that seems to exist in its own otherworldliness, existing in its own timeless space.

You, The Living

The record is a rollicking set of fuzzy, brassy, open-hearted psychedelic pop that pulls influences from the lo-fi movement, the Beatles' experiments in the-studio-as-instrument, musique concrète tape-collages, Klezmer music, and, even, the cryptic imagery and hoarse-throated wails of Kurt Cobain's Unplugged confessions. It can sound like a joyous celebration of life at one moment, a baleful lament for the funereal march of life at another; an album that can bring both whimsy and tragedy to musical life with equal aplomb.

In The Aeroplane Over The Sea is dressed in ye olde whimsy: its collages of penny-arcade art and its willful wearing of Sgt. Pepper's uniforms giving it a kind of cutesiness. But it is never a shallow exercise in style; its substantial songs trawling deep into the depths of Mangum's subconsciousness. Haunted by disturbing dreams, the specter of death, and the ghost of Anne Frank, Mangum fashioned an interior monologue that reads like the great American novel. And like some lo-fi Salinger, Mangum has declined to follow his masterpiece, retreating further into permanent artistic hibernation.

Record Label: Merge
Release Date: 10 February 1998

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