Retroview: In The Aeroplane Over the Sea

A few years ago, a friend let me borrow a CD. It’s cover was odd (below right), the band name–Neutral Milk Hotel–and title–In The Aeroplane Over the Sea–obscure. “But it’s really good,” I was assured.

And indeed, as I found after finally listening to it, it was. Surely the instrumentals were unconventional–bagpipes appear, as do many other sounds I don’t even know how to describe. And the vocal were as much nasally and grating as they were melodic and on-key. But on the whole, there was something about it. That something that folks might call “Je ne sais quoi;” I just like to call it “something.”

The lyrics too, which are probably the most important part of music for me, were obscure. Snippets certainly made sense, but if there was a unifying theme or idea behind the thing, I didn’t know what it was. Some lines were clever enough to stick, others would fade away, on the whole it was nice–possibly even optimistic–but was obscure enough to leave me wondering.

An example, from the song “Holland, 1945”:

Says it was good to be alive
But now he rides a comet’s flame
And won’t be coming back again
The Earth looks better from a star
That’s right above from where you are
He didn’t mean to make you cry
With sparks that ring and bullets fly
On empty rings around your heart
The world just screams and falls apart

There’s a certain nihilism there, sure, but to hear it put to music it sound more hopeful than hurt. Unlike so many songs, this one’s apologetic without forming an apology. It doesn’t long, wish, or despair. It just says it, whatever it is that it’s saying.

Flash forward to a few weeks ago, when I stumbled upon this Pitchfork article. Pitchfork, for those uninitiated, is the center of the hip indie-music world. Whether or not that titles completely accurate and fully agreed to is unknown to me. I don’t spend enough time following music criticism or the indie rock scene.

But here’s the point, I realized that this wasn’t some random album that a friend pointed out. It was something emblematic. And then last week, I came across Taylor Clark’s excellent profile of the man behind the album, who he accurately calls “Indie Rock’s Salinger.” Though I’m no great fan of Salinger, there’s strength in the analogy. Both men were tortured, troubled, and left the scene for hermetic life soon after success. Both are also revered as “geniuses.”

The articles made another point, but one I’m not sure I want to spoil. After all, it was something of a postmortem revelation for me that I wouldn’t want to deprive you of. I’ll just say that (1) both articles make explicit and early reference to this fact I hadn’t known before reading them, and (2) it made the album make more, but not complete, sense.

So I guess the whole point is this. If you’re into indie rock and don’t own this album, get it. If you’re not into to indie rock but interested, get this album. Actually, if you’re breathing and have twelve dollars in your pocket, it wouldn’t be a mistake to buy this album. You should at least consider it.