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Retroactive Thinking: Neutral Milk Hotel’s ‘In The Aeroplane Over the Sea’ Is 15 Years Old

Saturday 9th February 2013 by Saintmort

In the movie Garden State, Andrew Largeman (Zach Braff) is sitting in a doctor’s office as a seeing eye dog decides to violate his leg. As this occurs, the fast talking, scatterminded, yet still adorable Sam (Natalie Portman) sits in the distance laughing; this is the moment their eventual relationship is sparked. In his book Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs author Chuck Klosterman blames John Cusack for women not falling in love with him; I blame Garden State for my inability to be ‘content’ with most woman. Sam was (and to an extent still is) my ideal girl. Anyways, I’m getting sidetracked a bit (and I’ve only just started).


One of the more memorable moments in this particular scene occurs when Sam discovers Andrew has never heard The Shins and exclaims “You gotta hear this one song, it’ll change your life I swear.” It’s at this point that we hear a little bit of New Slang from The Shins’ debut studio album Oh, Inverted World. While I love this song, I think Sam has hyped them up a bit too much; I don’t think that The Shins have ever changed anyone’s life. Even the Insane Clown Posse has changed more lives than the Shins. In any case, it is possible that lives where changed on February 10th, 1998 when Neutral Milk Hotel’s In The Aeroplane Over the Sea was heard for the first time.



To be fair, chances are most people didn’t actually hear the song until a few years later, but whatever.


Neutral Milk Hotel was a Lo-Fi indie Rock band formed by Songwriter Jeff Mangum in the early 1990’s. They had a relatively short and uninteresting career when they were together. Their debut On Avery Island (mostly a solo album from Mangum) hit shelves in 1996, and after its release the band actually became a band (ie more people than just Mangum were members) and immediately got to working on their follow up, which would eventually become In The Aeroplane Over The Sea. The album would sadly also be their last release.


Just as the underperforming album was building momentum Mangum put the band on an indefinite hiatus due to stress from constant touring. It was then that the album really exploded.


15 years after its release the record is just as powerful as ever. The most exciting aspect about it is that fact that, while it’s an Indie Rock Classic, there are still many, many people who haven’t experienced it. This means that all these years later, the album still makes the same impact it always did; I can still recall the very first time I heard it.


I had known of Neutral Milk Hotel when I was in high school. I was a member of the TV studio and the head of the group would constantly play the titular track. I really dug the song; it was simplistic musically, bizarre lyrically, but yet still felt meaningful. It wasn’t until college however, that I found a copy of the complete album. I remember driving to visit some friends at West Chester University that summer and putting the album into my CD player; that opening acoustic guitar riff to The King of Carrot Flowers Part 1 immediately made me realize this was an album you rolled the windows down to when you listened to it.


Maybe it was the scenery, maybe it was just the right time in my life to be listening to it; it could be countless factors, but I know that in those 40 minutes I had just discovered an album that I’d never forget. In some weird way the album spoke to me, it didn’t matter that for the most part the lyrics don’t make sense and when they DO make sense they’re mostly a love letter to Anne Frank, it was simply something in the music. That fuzzy bass, the horns, bagpipes on one track (10), chaotic drums which sound like they were recorded in one take with no scratch track, and let’s not forget a singer singing loudly and straining his voice to its limit; all these elements combined into a singular sound that many bands have tried to replicate and failed. Mangum’s passion for putting together this album oozes in every note, lyric and even lingers in the moments of distortion and feedback.


The album has influenced many of the biggest musicians in Indie Rock and Pop Punk. Brand New’s Jesse Lacey has called it the greatest record ever written and has covered quite a few of its tracks live. Bands like Arcade Fire, Bon Iver, The Decemberists and Franz Ferdinand have all referred to the band’s influence, and the songs have been covered by artists such as Kevin Devine, The Mountain Goats and Matt Pond PA. In The Aeroplane Over The Sea has even been praised by such publications as Entertainment Weekly (The Indie Rock 25), Magnet (#1 album of 1993-2003), Pitchfork Media (#4 album of the 1990s) and The Village Voice (#15 album of 1998). My point being that this is the Pinkerton of Indie Rock.


Yet despite the praise and influence, very few people have heard this album. Even just looking up their songs on YouTube, you’ll find comments from people saying they discovered the band through the book Will Grayson, Will Grayson (which was just published in 2010). Here we are 15 years later, and the album is still changing people’s lives; I doubt people will be able to say the same about The Shins.


Rumors have popped up from time to time about the band making a new album or a return to touring year after year. While there were a few occasional performances by Mangum over the last few years, nothing has come from it except an EP of rarities in 2011 and a small West Coast tour in 2012. That is, until last month, when Mangum went on his first official tour, which concludes this Saturday in North Adams, Massachusetts. Perhaps in honor of the 15 year anniversary, we will finally get a follow-up to this classic cult favorite.