Neutral Milk Hotel - In the Aeroplane over the Sea (Cover Artwork)
Staff Pick

Neutral Milk Hotel

In the Aeroplane over the Sea (1998)


Neutral Milk Hotel’s swan song, In the Aeroplane over the Sea, ended up being Jeff Mangum’s magnum opus. In part, because it’s one of the best albums of the nineties and also due to the fact he’s yet to record anything of note since then. While the album gets labeled as indie rock, that’s a very broad spectrum term. This album, like much of the albums released by Elephant 6, owes a debt of gratitude to many of the 60’s pop and psychedelic folk bands. While many bands attempted to recreate this sound at the end of the nineties, aside from Elephant 6 compatriots Of Montreal along with the Scottish band Belle and Sebastian that got it right as often of Neutral Milk Hotel does here. I played this for my father, he was born in 1956, and he was surprised to learn that it wasn’t twenty to thirty years older than it was.

While there are a few exceptions, the nineties weren’t a huge decade for concept rock albums. Not only does this album follow a concept, albeit loosely, it may also take on what is one of the stranger concepts for a concept album by an indie rock band. Prior to writing this album, Jeff Mangum read The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank. That writing heavily informed the lyrical direction of this album, and apparently also spawned Mangum to have dreams in which he went back in time to save Anne Frank. While the concept is there, especially if you are listening for it, the lyrics are also cryptic enough anyone can freely associate them with their own experiences as well. For example, the title track likely made it on every mix disc I ever made for a girl in my early twenties. I, of course, didn’t know at the time the lyric stating “Anna’s ghost” was a direct reference to Anne Frank. But, that kind of awareness isn’t something most men in their early twenties have … so I’ll cut myself a break.

Unusual point of lyrical inspiration aside, this album touches on many of the same things Anne Frank’s writing did. Mainly, love and how to love when faced while dealing with life and death on a day-to –day basis … were it not for upbeat music I dare say this album had the potential to be downright depressing. The music is, frequently, a great counterpoint to the lyrics though. Mangum’s near masterful songwriting features melodies and harmonies that will stick with you for days. These are complimented by the one man brass section that is Scott Spillane. While brass and woodwind instruments weren’t new to the indie rock scene by 1998, they were rarely used with the same success they were here.

This is one of the rare instances, where I’m not going to say certain individual tracks are highlights. Every song on this album can stand by itself, and when they’re put together they only get stronger. There are few flawless albums from the latter half of the nineties; this is one of them though. Each song is arranged like it was meticulously crafted but still performed in such a manner that you know the album wasn’t auto-tuned and pitch corrected until its soul was removed. It was likely those strengths, amongst others, that earned the album praises from such diverse musicians as Win Butler from Arcade Fire and Jesse Lacey of Brand New. By the late nineties, indie rock had been co-opted by marketing firms and major label A&R reps, when combined with many of the great bands from the early half of the decade having already called it a day or preparing to do so the genre was becoming more and more diluted. While some may argue this point, I would put In the Aeroplane over the Sea as one of the few true classics to be released in 1998. And perhaps, the last indispensable indie rock album of the nineties … with the possible exception of The Flaming Lips’ Soft Bulletin released the following year.