Neutral Milk Hotel : Revisiting an old favorite

Alex Schaaf

Most of you are aware of the “best” albums of the last ten years or so, the ones that most critics agree are unmatchable.
You may not worship all of them, but you have probably heard of Radiohead’s “OK Computer,” Sufjan Stevens’s “Illinoise,” Wilco’s “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot,” The Strokes’ “Is This It,” and many more, this not being even close to a comprehensive list.
But one that you have not heard of is perhaps one of the most fiercely worshipped albums of our generation, one that never reached much visible or public acclaim, but one that grabs any who hear it and claims them as life-long, intensely dedicated fans. I’m speaking of “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea,” the 1998 album from Neutral Milk Hotel.
Neutral Milk Hotel was active in the mid-to-late 90s, based out of Athens, Georgia. Led by lead singer/songwriter Jeff Mangum, they released a few EPs and a debut album, “On Avery Island,” before stunning critics and fans alike with their second full-length release, “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea.”
Described as a “spiritually motivated work,” the album was an oblique concept piece based on the beauty to be found in the story of Anne Frank, the good that can come out of such evil. Rock on, right?
The average listener wouldn’t pick up on the Anne Frank context, but anyone could get pulled in by Mangum’s surreal-yet-personal lyrics. Your brain is telling you that you have no idea what he is talking about, but your heart is nodding along, feeling like Mangum is singing these words to you and no one else.
Starting the album with the line “When you were young/you were the King of Carrot Flowers,” Mangum goes on to talk about two-headed boys floating in jars, communist daughters, and the only girl he has ever loved being born “with roses in her eyes.”
Weaved throughout all of the songs is a message of beauty, a pure, unfettered message void of irony and full of earnest, sincere emotion. Kevin Barnes of the group “***lack of cap intentional -mts***of Montreal” said of this album, “I feel that Jeff Mangum’s voice on that record was a portal through which the animal agony and maniac joy of the universal human spirit found amplification.”
Words aside, the instrumentation and production of this album was a major factor in the tremendous response it got from critics and fans.
Redefining the idea of “sparse,” the dominant production of the album is Mangum singing over an acoustic guitar, keeping the focus on the singer and the song itself rather than hiding the message behind layers of sound.
The songs often burst into distorted, eccentric piles of noise, featuring singing saws, euphoniums, accordions, and horns, but the most powerful moments come when the instrumentation is at its simplest.
I know this sounds like many other music reviews, and you are tempted to just shrug it off and go on, but if any review on these pages deserves your attention, this is it. I plead you to go and find a copy of this album immediately. I doubt you will regret it.