Neutral Milk Hotel’s ‘In the Aeroplane Over the Sea’ turns 20

Neutral Milk Hotel
In the Aeroplane Over the Sea

Merge Records · February 10, 1998


Neutral Milk Hotel released their second album, In The Aeroplane Over The Sea, twenty years ago on February 10, 1998. Although no one really listened to or even liked it at that much at first, it quickly become the most important indie rock album of all time. Everyone from the likes of Arcade Fire to The Lumineers owes a great deal to the masterpiece that is In The Aeroplane Over The Sea and the new scope of sounds it brought to light.

Born out of The Elephant 6 Collective, a Denver-based group of bands (of Montreal, Elf Power, the Apples in Stereo) who focused on reviving and evolving 60s era psych-pop, Neutral Milk Hotel is the child of Jeff Mangum. In the years before Neutral Milk Hotel, Jeff wandered the country, staying with various acquaintances, and worked on music projects. None of his, or even the other Elephant 6 projects, had gotten much attention at that point – so it was only natural that when he was thrust into the spotlight over the monstrous success of In The Aeroplane Over The Sea, Jeff receded into essential hermitude, creating one of the many myths around the group. There was something incredibly intriguing about a singer who wrote an entire album about Anne Frank, then declined a tour backing R.E.M. to set his guitar down and hide for the next ten years. This created a legendary air around Neutral Milk Hotel that still holds to this day.

That mythology is rightfully deserved as Jeff Mangum certainly created one of the most forward-thinking and lyrically encapsulating albums of the era. The album combines more traditional psychedelic folk and rock with punk, jazz, and Eastern European sounds, which allows seemingly normal rock tracks like ‘Holland, 1945’ to exist next to a bagpipe solo (‘[untitled]’) and listeners barely question the change. The lyrics, though, are often questioned because if you do not pay close attention, you will be left scratching your head as to why “semen stains the mountain tops.” In The Aeroplane Over The Sea is something of a concept album, telling an extension of Anne Frank’s story. Before the album’s recording, Jeff Mangum read The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank and was so moved by the story that he began to have recurring dreams about a jewish family as well as travelling back in time to save Anne Frank. On ‘Oh Comely,’ Mangum sings “I know they buried her body with others / Her sister and mother and five-hundred families / And will she remember me fifty years later? / I wished I could save her in some sort of time machine.” It’s certainly an odd story for a non-Jewish young man in America to be telling fifty years after the Holocaust, but it’s impossibly infectious and emotional. Part of the beauty of the album is that the emotion holds even without focusing on its concept; the clash of the familiar and the outlandish stirs up unrivaled emotional turmoil.

In The Aeroplane Over The Sea ends with Jeff Mangum taking his guitar off and walking away. Symbolic of both the end of the album and the end of Neutral Milk Hotel, Mangum seems to be signalling that he has said what he needed to say. Neutral Milk Hotel would never record another song after, despite the album’s growth to massive acclaim and popularity in subsequent years. Mangum would completely disappear until 2010, only contributing to a few scattered projects in the meantime. The story was sealed. The band had delivered the pinnacle of indie rock that would go on to inspire so many others around the turn of the century. Twenty years later, In The Aeroplane Over The Sea has proven its place as a timeless classic, transcending music to become a placard for an entire generation of independent musicians.

Listen to In the Aeroplane Over the Sea here:

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