When you were young
You were the king of carrot flowers
And how you built a tower tumbling through the trees
In holy rattlesnakes that fell all around your feet
Hearing these opening lines to Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea for the first time affected me.
You see, up until this point, I was a classic rock kid. My school folders were COVERED with the same 5 band names written out in a myriad of ways: The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, The Doors, Simon & Garfunkel, Jimi Hendrix, The Doors, The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Simon & Garfunkel, The Doors, Led Zeppelin, The Doors, Simon & Garfunkel, Jimi Hendrix, The Beatles.
Everything I listened to was epic, either because of its sound or the myth surrounding its creation. In a lot of cases, it was both.
Then I heard Jeff Mangum singing about the King of Carrot Flowers from what sounded like a studio tucked away in a basement. I was challenged and immediately hooked.
I listened to Aeroplane on a loop for what seemed like years. I would’ve worn out the grooves if I were listening on vinyl. Instead, my last.fm stats reflected a total obsession.
The honesty with which the guys in Neutral Milk Hotel played was totally new to me. It didn’t sound overproduced, but it didn’t sound like what my friends and I were making by messing around on CoolEdit in my room until 4 in the morning. Aeroplane seems to have been made in the same spirit as what my friends and I were creating, but it was…well…good.
Personnel credits on Aeroplane tell us that band members played everything from shortwave radios, singing saws, and euphoniums. For my friends and I, this was the coolest thing ever.
These were lo-fi, DIY heroes, and their songs were absolutely brilliant and almost painfully honest:
Oh how I remember you
How I would push my fingers through
Your mouth to make those muscles move
That made your voice so smooth and sweet
But now we keep where we don’t know
All secrets sleep in winter clothes
The one you loved so long ago
Now he don’t even know his name
It hurt to listen to these songs. But it was a pain I actually wanted to experience over and over again.
The fact that Mangum was frantically whining about a lost love from his youth or discovering human sexuality for the first time or dysfunctional parents or Anne Frank only made the songs more poignant, not inaccessible.
However, these songs take time to really appreciate. Aeroplane grows on you over time. Proof of this could be seen, I think, in Pitchfork’s reviews of the record. In 1998, a then unknown Pitchfork gave the album an 8.7. In 2005, it was revisited and the almighty P4K gave it the legendary perfect 10.
But, as impressive as that is, I don’t think any of that really changes the experience of listening to Aeroplane. The album still sounds like a scrappy band from Louisiana instilled with incredible talent and songs that transport you to ugly and beautiful places (often in the same verse).
In under 40 minutes, the guys in Neutral Milk Hotel do what most bands don’t do in an entire discography. They create something genuine.