1998, Music

In the Aeroplane Over the Sea (1998) by Neutral Milk Hotel

Does knowing the supposed concept make this record more problematic? I think so.

Much like its predecessor, this record feels like a hugely influential record: fairly accessible, even poppy singer-songwriter songs with clear vocals (albeit idiosyncratic lyrics) and idiosyncratic, often lo-fi arrangements that make the songs seem a lot less accessible than they are. Only this time, there’s supposedly a (heavy) concept uniting everything together.

It’s a concept that has been praised and the obscurity of this concept – if you don’t read about it online, I would be utterly shocked if you can guess it with just listening to the record- has also been praised. (There is literally one track that directly hints at it. You can tell from the track listing as it has a time and place in the title.) Someone said something like “The one concept album you can enjoy without knowing the concept.” I would say “A concept album where you shouldn’t know it’s a concept album, because that’s frustrating.”

It’s tough to know where the intention to create a concept album comes from, as I’m not always sure it’s the artist. Sometimes some songs on an album are united by a theme and that theme is turned into a grand “concept” for all tracks by critics or fans, when the artist was merely inspired. I don’t know if that’s what happened here.

But the intention really was a concept record, it is perhaps the most obscure one I’ve ever heard. I’m all for lyrics you can puzzle out (to a certain point) but I’m not sure the puzzle’s solvable unless you have a codex. And that’s super annoying.

If you can get past the concept (or if you don’t know what it is), this is iconic, influential, indie folk that’s catchy enough to be memorable and idiosyncratic enough to stay interesting. But I’m pretty sure I liked this more before I read about it.

7/10

All songs written by Jeff Mangum, except where indicated. Horn arrangements by Robert Schneider and Scott Spillane.

  1. “The King of Carrot Flowers, Pt. One” 2:00
  2. “The King of Carrot Flowers, Pts. Two & Three” (writers: Jeremy Barnes, Julian Koster, Jeff Mangum, Scott Spillane) 3:06
  3. “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea” 3:22
  4. “Two-Headed Boy” 4:26
  5. “The Fool” (writers: Spillane) 1:53
  6. “Holland, 1945” 3:15
  7. “Communist Daughter” 1:57
  8. “Oh Comely” 8:18
  9. “Ghost” 4:08
  10. “Untitled” 2:16
  11. “Two-Headed Boy, Pt. Two” 5:13

PS To be fair to Mangum, the concept, such as it is, is explicitly stated in a verse of “Oh Comely” and most of this song you can read into it. But it would take a lot of time for me to find how this record is about this concept in most of the other songs. I think it’s much more likely that a couple songs (3?) are inspired by one thing and the rest of the songs are not.

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