neutral milk hotel: aeroplane over the sea review

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Editorial and Opinion  |  House: Booksie Classic
an album review of neutral milk hotel's aeroplane over the sea.

Submitted: September 26, 2011

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Submitted: September 26, 2011

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Several months ago, I went to Amsterdam while exploring Western Europe. The line outside the Anne Frank house was winding and sweaty, but entering her room, a somber pang swept over my body that I couldn't quite manage to communicate. As a writer, and an atheistic one at that, rearranging words that my mind has logically digested has always been my most effective method of expression. Yet when emotion overtakes the public, and their words alone can't quite get across the message, it’s music’s job to take over and convey what’s meant to be communicated: in the cult alternative band Neutral Milk Hotels 1999 album The Aeroplane Over the Sea, they accomplish that mission in a tragically beautiful collection.

Jeff Magnum, the lead singer and lyricist of the band Neutral Milk Hotel (based in Athens, Georgia), wrote this album after reading Anne Frank's Diary of a Young Girl. He felt an extreme sadness after reading the work, and as an outlet for his grief, wrote this collection of tracks. The most interesting aspect of the album is its honesty; while all of the public has been somewhat educated or informed on the mass horror that was the holocaust, the most that we feel is a distant sympathy for the victims and fear at the human indifference and cruelty that could have caused it. Time and an inability to fully relate, as a modern audience, creates boundaries for us. Yet for a musical genius like Magnum, his sadness overwhelmed him in such a raw and honest manner that the truth in his voice and words demonstrate a sincerity that is so rare to come across when rehashing unknown lives of the past. He allegedly had recurring dreams of a Jewish family during the Second World War, contributing to the album’s ability to travel back in time and sense of empathy. His source of inspiration is clear in the strong narrative that rings through every one of the songs on this album, recognizing an international tragedy through personal stories so we can connect, as listeners. His stream of consciousness style lyrics draw us in, and help us become part of the hypnotizing world he’s brought himself back to, somehow. Magnum takes ones girl’s incredible story and branches it out into a story of love, loss and youth, in a journey that meets a superb middle ground between word mastery and superb musicianship. It’s rare to find a band that’s catchy yet thoughtful and appealing to the more esoteric crowds, as well as revolving around a profound historical event. Bands like Rage Against the Machine, as well as U2, are groups that have tackled political themes in more active and literal ways, but Magnum seems to cover a new territory in his vulnerable tone when zoning in on coming-of-age tales in the midst of tragedy. U2’s popular 1983 song “Sunday Bloody Sunday” makes reference to the horror in Derry and the Irish War of Independence. Groups like RATM have lead political protests, and strong opinions surrounding themes such as social inequality, and a more modern aversion to corporate America come through in their lyrics. U2, more specifically their lead singer Bono, is well-known for being highly philanthropic and concerned over politics and the welfare of our world’s citizens, such as his efforts towards the AIDS epidemic in Africa.

The group’s previous works include 1994’s EP Everything Is, followed by their first legitimate album release, “On Avery Island”. Their fuzzy, lo-fi sound was just welcoming enough for mainstream audiences to appreciate their aesthetics as well and grow accustomed to their almost hypnotizing prose that is the album’s lyrical content. Audiences also learned to love their quirky choice of instruments, and Magnum’s original voice, almost bringing to mind a Bob Dylan adaptation of sorts. But it is only in “On Avery Island” album that the music’s profundity seems to sink in. Through narratives, Magnum manages to reach back in time, yet communicate with his modern audience with a surprising intimacy. This might be explained by his sincere vulnerability in bearing his personal thoughts and dreams, which the rest of the public may conjure in their minds as well, and don’t quite manage to turn into masterpieces.  His lyrics are dark and surreal, at the same time invoking a youthful romanticism. The man behind the music is quiet about his creative process-he hasn’t consented to an interview in years. When he traveled to Spain and France, he recorded unusual sounds such as background noise of children and animals, as well as using snippets from protests, and bells. This gives logic to his unconventional but tamer use of instruments in this album. In one rare interview with Pitchfork, when asked about visions that inspired his works (bring to mind the dreams of the Jewish family): he voiced one particular one in which he found himself in a state of unconsciousness, where a butterfly and a spider represented his fears and his loves and taught him to let the two coexist. He also mentions practicing active imagination before sleep in order to inspire himself, which he described as “the place between sleeping and waking”. (Pitchfork), adding to the surreal aspect of his narratives. He spends much of his time mulling over what makes people so destructive in this world, and this comes through clearly in his usage of such a widespread event of cruelty. In the interview, he expresses his willingness to confront suffering passionately, as well promoting as his interest in Buddhism, demonstrative of his views on equality (that all creatures, human and animal, carry no superiority over one another).

The progressions and melodies in the songs are simple, but they are still diverse: they go from schizophrenic with harder, fuzzier roots to slow-moving acoustic pieces that can be appreciated with more audible clarity. The range of musical instruments used is also diverse, with brass inclusions such as horns, guitar, a singing saw, and even an accordion. This allows the listener a bit more genre bending, and invites an even broader audience, detracting from the notion of a pretentious, obscure band. It reinforces the musical structure of the album and the songs themselves, toggling between fast-paced and drawn out (both equally emotionally charged) which affirms a highly contemplative process to the making of the collection.

The album opens with the song “King of Carrot Flowers”, which is divided into two parts (part 1, and parts 2&3). The tracks are diverse; while the first is youthful and has a jovial tone to its melody, two and three are much more sobering, sounding almost like a prayer mantra at the beginning (Magnum’s heart pangs in the opening lines:” I love you Jesus Christ, I love you, yes I do.” A connection can be made between the cheery tone in the first song’s bold guitar, and the funeral dirge that follows. This is where the complexity of the album comes in: the first part’s upbeat, strident tonality hides and balances its morbid lyrics of domestic abuse, a child’s escape from it through imagination, and sexual discovery. In “The Aeorplane Over the  Sea”, the warbling notes and the slow drawl of Magnum’s voice almost bring to mind couples in the 1950s slow dancing to a ballad in order to remember that young love. It embraces nostalgic notions that when young and in love, everything is beautiful, but it is not everlasting “What a beautiful dream that could flash on the screen in a blink of an eye and be gone from me.” He may be alluding to a dead love, symbolic for another lost story of a Holocaust victim who has died and now mourned by her lover, who he hopes he will meet again in the afterlife. “Two Headed Boy” (Parts 1 and 2) are also key tracks; the fact that more than one song is divided into parts shows Magnum’s loyalty to his narrative style of the album. The song can be interpreted as being about the experiments Nazis conducted on two headed boys, alluding to “tap on your jar” and “pulleys and weights”, euphemizing the suffocation that occurred in the gas chambers with:” We will take off our clothes” and “choking with her hands across her face”. “Holland 1945” is an instrumental attack on the senses. It has almost punk roots in its howling nature. The theme of a lost, dead love is also continued, but it also brings up the strength that is necessary to persevere and carry on, even after something as tragic as your family dying around you occur: “where their bodies once moved but don’t move anymore” The lyrics seem to explore the same surrealism that is found in a child’s mind in previous tracks. Magnum’s word choice to portray the innocent naivety of the child’s mind is on the dot, and manages to communicate nostalgia without being sappy or condescending.

Not many people may have heard of Neutral Milk Hotel; they’re a band with a slight cult status, and before this album, they had even less fans.  Their recording label, Elephant Six Recording Company, has spawned groups that even some of the biggest music snobs would hesitate on their knowledge of. But the lyrics and Magnum’s clear mission force anyone who confronts the band’s music to, at the least, respect them or take them seriously.  Yet by improving their recording quality, sharpening up instrumentals, and providing a behemoth of thematic content that looks at history from an innovative, personal angle, they opened up their audience. Like the musical bands I previously mentioned who drew inspiration from historical events, albums like this help raise historical awareness on such a tragedy. Musicians who take on honest and historical content are responsible for making eloquent a topic that they feel should be revealed more to the public. With artists creating music to raise awareness, whether it is form an international tragedy, or something on a smaller scale, they make eloquent what people fear and grapple with understanding. They make knowledge more accessible to the public, through music, and Neutral Milk Hotel succeeds in this mission immensely.

 Even though not everyone might feel the connection to a national tragedy as Magnum did, they can connect to his broader themes of the affirmation of life, the sorrows of death, sex, and ultimately, relatable events that we all go through as we grow up and grow old. Though some of the lyrics could be seen as morbid, or explicit (the songs clearly aren’t geared towards an immature audience), they also contain a sensitive plea to heal from destructive forces that is at the root of Magnum’s message, and at the end of the day, transcends all other aspects of the album.

 


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