by Ryan Fine
The clock has chimed on 10 Feb. 2018, which means it has officially been two decades since the poster child of hipster music was released.
Neutral Milk Hotel’s second album In the Aeroplane Over the Sea occupies a unique space in the musical consciousness. If you don’t consider yourself a fan of indie music, then as the band’s most stereotypical fans would tell you, “you’ve probably never heard of it.” But anyone who’s spent any length of time in their local record store or on many of the Internet’s most popular music sites is likely to recognize the album cover immediately. Even those who have never listened to the album themselves could probably quote several of its most outlandish lines.
Things weren’t always like this. Back when the folk rock quartet released the album back in 1998, there was little real buzz to be heard. Sure, it got some good reviews – great ones, even – but there were some notable dissenters as well. In a 3-star Rolling Stone review, Ben Ratliff said that “The King of Carrot Flowers” with its abundant instrumental layers “mask[ed]the absence of a decent melody.” He then derided the album as “thin-blooded, woolgathering stuff.” Dele Fadele’s 6/10 review for NME started by calling vocalist Jeff Mangum “a sick and demented fellow,” but ultimately conceding that the album was a “convoluted musical journey worth embarking on.”
For a fledgling band from Ruston, Louisiana, mixed publicity was still publicity worth having. It was certainly more than could be said for the project’s highly underrated first album On Avery Island, which was released two years earlier essentially as a Jeff Mangum solo record. (The four-person lineup was assembled mostly for the purpose of touring for On Avery Island.) So with a relatively successful release cycle behind them and a small but devoted following, Neutral Milk Hotel took its Aeroplane to the masses.
The issue for Jeff Mangum was that it took a lot of effort and time away from home to reach those masses, and the payoff was not always worth it. At a certain point, he could only bear to explain the same unconventional lyric to so many interviewers. For a man who preferred to have some privacy, the constant attention that came from a full-scale tour quickly became too much to handle, and by the time the band returned to their new home in Athens, Georgia, Jeff was out of energy. Though he tried to write new music to please his friends and bandmates, soon it was official: Neutral Milk Hotel was no more.
And in some ways, that’s where the real story began.
When Jeff Mangum quit, he quit cold turkey. He helped out some of his friends by playing and singing on their albums, but he stopped writing his own music entirely. He has turned down almost every interview request for the past 20 years and even a support slot for R.E.M., much to the chagrin of the band’s other three members. Essentially, he disappeared, and his new status as a mysterious shadowy figure made him a much more legitimate artist in the eyes of the public.
Suddenly the independent music world was enamored with In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, a newly thrilling masterpiece about Anne Frank, two-headed boys and Jesus Christ. It eventually caught the attention of those who would start bands like Arcade Fire, The Decemberists and Fleet Foxes, all of whom are indebted in some way or another to the sound of this album. Even Franz Ferdinand, whose wild dance-punk grooves seem to have nothing in common with Aeroplane at first glance, have cited Neutral Milk Hotel as an influence.
But as it happens with all good things, the Internet got a hold of Aeroplane and ruthlessly turned it into music’s longest-running meme. Emphatic but awkward lyrics like “I love you, Jesus Christ!” and “Semen stains the mountaintops” have been made fun of countless times, and the album cover has taken on a life of its own. What the heck is that thing where that lady’s head is supposed to be, anyway? Some say it’s a potato. Most others land on some percussion instrument or another.
“It’s a tambourine.” Corey Halbert and Jacob Harding, who both discovered Neutral Milk Hotel in high school through the Internet, agree on this. It may seem like watching an album get made fun of repeatedly on the Internet is a strange way to end up loving it, but this is how an increasing number of young music enthusiasts are learning about In the Aeroplane Over the Sea.
“I heard all of the memes and the jokes about it and how it’s the ultimate hipster album,” says Halbert, “and I thought, if this many people are talking about it to the point where it’s become a meme, I should probably listen to it just so I’m informed.”
It turned out to be a good investment of his time, though it was a slow grower. “I came across it my sophomore year of high school, and I didn’t love it at first. But then my senior year when I actually sat down and really tried to digest it and analyze it, I realized the nuance of the lyrics and the concept behind the album. That’s when I really started loving it.”
The tracks that stood out the most to him on first listen were the three right at the beginning: the multi-part “King of Carrot Flowers” suite and “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea.” He mentions a lyric from “The King of Carrot Flowers, Part 1” as one of his favorites: “Your mom would stick a fork right into Daddy’s shoulder / And Dad would throw the garbage all across the floor / As we would lay and learn what each other’s bodies were for.”
The album was much more immediate for Harding. “I thought it was amazing the first time I heard it,” he says. “People on the Internet wouldn’t shut up about it. I liked the cover, it looked cool, so I listened to it and it was really good. I listened to ‘Holland, 1945’ and ‘The King of Carrot Flowers’ before I actually listened to the album, so I knew what I was getting into.”
“Holland, 1945” is the only true certified banger on this album, and as one of several songs inspired by Jeff Mangum’s fascination with Anne Frank’s diary, it houses a number of lyrical gems. The opening lines are one of them: “The only girl I’ve ever loved / Was born with roses in her eyes / But then they buried her alive, one evening 1945.” And of course one of the most vivid images on the album, “Now she’s a little boy in Spain / Playing pianos filled with flames.” Stephen Colbert, whose favorite band is Neutral Milk Hotel, used this as the ending song on the last episode of The Colbert Report.
So if there’s so much genuine love for Neutral Milk Hotel, why do we turn them into a joke? Is it some roundabout way to respect them or get the word out to more people?
“I just think it’s annoying, honestly,” says Harding.
“I think it definitely skewed my first listen,” says Halbert. “I think going into it knowing it was a legendary cult album kind of tainted it.”
Jeff Mangum will probably never tell the public whether he finds the memes funny or not, but I’m sure it wouldn’t stop anyone if he didn’t. For over a decade, there has been a constant barrage of edited Aeroplane album covers, stupid rage comics featuring Jeff Mangum, and entire parody albums including In the Aeroskank Over the Checkered Pattern by Skanktral Ska Hotel and In My G4 Over Da Sea by Neutral Bling Hotel.
But in some cheesy sentiment of “music brings people together” or something, maybe the ridiculous meme culture does too. On some level, we all want to Photoshop the circle-face lady so it looks like she’s dabbing, but there’s a genuine appreciation for the music underneath the surface. I bet if you get a bunch of these shy Internet nerds in a room together and start strumming the chords for “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea,” they would all sing loud and proud and have a grand old time.
Before we’ve even finished our interview, Corey Halbert is picking up his acoustic guitar and doing just that. He forgets a couple of words in the first verse, so we start on the second one together:
“And one day we will die
And our ashes will fly from the aeroplane over the sea
But for now we are young
Let us lay in the sun
And count every beautiful thing we can see”
Man, who cares if it’s cliché? Music does bring people together. And if there’s one band who can teach us that, it’s Neutral Milk Hotel.
I still think it’s a potato.