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So, then, seven years later Domino reissues In the Aeroplane Over the Sea and the arguments can begin anew. I've talked about this album with a lot of people, including huroji.com readers and music writers, and while it is loved in the indie world like few others, a small but still significant number despise it. Aeroplane doesn't have the near-consensus of top-shelf 90s rock artifacts like, say, Loveless, OK Computer, or Slanted and Enchanted. These records are varied, of course, different in many ways. But in one key respect Aeroplane stands apart: This album is not cool.
Shortly after the release of In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, Puncture magazine had a cover story on Neutral Milk Hotel. In it Mangum told of the influence on the record of Anne Frank's The Diary of a Young Girl. He explained that shortly after releasing On Avery Island he read the book for the first time, and found himself completely overwhelmed with sadness and grief. Back in 1998 this admission made my jaw drop. What the hell? A guy in a rock band saying he was emotionally devastated by a book everyone else in America read for a middle-school assignment? I felt embarrassed for him at first, but then, the more I thought about it and the more I heard the record, I was awed. Mangum's honesty on this point, translated directly to his music, turned out to be a source of great power.
In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is a personal album but not in the way you expect. It's not biography. It's a record of images, associations, and threads; no single word describes it so well as the beautiful and overused "kaleidoscope." It has the cracked logic of a dream, beginning with "King of Carrot Flowers Part 1". The easiest song on the record to like on first listen, it quietly introduces the listener to the to the album's world, Mangum singing in a muted voice closer to where he left off with the more restrained On Avery Island (through most of Aeroplane he sounds like he's running out of time and struggling to get everything said). The first four words are so important: "When you were young..." Like every perceptive artist trafficking in memory, Mangum knows dark surrealism to be the language of childhood. At a certain age the leap from kitchen utensils jammed into dad's shoulder to feet encircled by holy rattlesnakes is nothing. A cock of the head; a squint, maybe.
Inside this dream it all begins in the body. Moments of trauma, joy, shame-- here they're all experienced first as physical sensation. A flash of awkward intimacy is recalled as "now how I remember you/ how I would push my fingers through your mouth/ to make those muscles move." Sometimes I hear this line and chuckle. I think of Steve Martin in The Jerk, licking Bernadette Peters' entire face as a sign of affection. Mangum here reflects the age when biological drives outpace the knowledge of what to do with them, a time you're seeing sex in everything ("semen stains the mountaintops") or that sex can be awkward and unintentionally painful ("fingers in the notches of your spine" is not what one usually hopes for in the dark). Obsessed as it is with the textures of the flesh and the physical self as an emotional antenna, listening to Aeroplane sometimes seems to involve more than just your ears.
Then there's the record's disorienting relationship to time. The instrumentation seems plucked randomly from different years in the 20th century: singing saws, Salvation Army horn arrangements, banjo, accordion, pipes. Lyrical references to technology are hard to fix. Anne Frank's lifespan from 1929 to 1945 is perhaps the record's historical center, but the perspective jumps back and forth over centuries, with images and figures sucked from their own age and squirted out somewhere else. When "The King of Carrot Flowers Part 3" mentions "a synthetic flying machine" our minds leap to something like Leonardo da Vinci's 15th Century drawings of his helicopter prototype. The image in "Two-Headed Boy" of a mutant child trapped in a jar of formaldehyde is pulled from Dr. Moreau's industrial age island. The radio play powered by pre-electric pulleys and weights, the nuclear holocaust in the title track. What's it all about? Mangum offers an explanation for these jarring leaps in a line about Anne Frank in "Oh Comely," where he sings, "I know they buried her body with others/ her sister and mother and 500 families/ and will she remember me 50 years later/ I wished I could save her in some sort of time machine." If you can move through time, see, nothing ever really dies.
Seven years it's been, and whether Mangum has had personal trouble or somehow lost his way with music, it's not unreasonable to think that we've heard the last from Neutral Milk Hotel. I hope he does, but he may never pick up the guitar he set down after "Two-Headed Boy Part Two." Even so, we have this album and another very good one, and that to me is serious riches. Amazing to think how it started, how at the core of it all was guts. I keep thinking of "It's Alright Ma, I'm Only Bleeding," and one of Dylan's truest lines: "If my thought-dreams could be seen/ They'd probably put my head in a guillotine." Aeroplane is what happens when you have that knowledge and still take the risk.