Tuesday, June 10, 2008
Album: In the Aeroplane Over the Sea
Artist: Neutral Milk Hotel
Released: 1998 (Merge)
Favorite Songs: In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, Oh Comely, Ghost, Two Headed Boy Pt. II
The All Music Guide review of In The Aeroplane Over The Sea describes Jeff Mangum as either "a genius or an utter crackpot, with the truth probably falling somewhere in between." The idealist in me scoffs at the notion of Jeff falling anywhere south of the genius label. I used to eat up those VH1 'best artists ever' or 'best song of all time' countdowns, because I was such a sucker for quantification and banner waving. "Zeppelin was rated the best hard rock band...of all time!" But with age has come practicality and rationality, and frankly I realize those lists are ratings cash cows, and more or less garbage. For example, Tom Waits was number 90, the Doors were number 20. Aside from record sales and dorm-room poster ratio, I'm thinking those rankings weren't based on much. Certainly not music. (Hipster note: I never had a Doors poster, but I did have a framed print of the artwork from Waits' Nighthawks at the Diner hanging in my apartment in college.)
So, suffice to say labels and rankings and other such gilded honors amount to little more than a Wikipedia bullet point. Therefore, I can embrace the fact that Jeff Mangum is probably not a genius. An idiosyncratic songwriter, lyrically gifted with a flare for the bizarre, and a voice that can soar to the rafters, frantic as a sparrow. But a genius? Frankly, who knows. I give him a ton of credit though and I do believe he favors the genius end of the spectrum, while perhaps not standing stoically at the front of the line. Each time I listen to ITAOTS, I hear some reference or make some connection that leads me to believe Mangum must have some deeper meaning inscribed in every last lyric, every saw-wail and wonky horn arrangement, and it all must interweave to decode a cryptic message. But do I really want this album to be a Dan Brown novel? I really don't...
So allow me to present my neat-and-tidy thematic conclusion: An album about sordid childhood memories, textured by bizarre minutiae, and presented vis-a-vis Anne Frank's tragic life and death, and the war-torn state of 1930s/1940s Europe in general. It'd be too easy to say the album is about Anne Frank. It's pretty clear that Mangum has canonized Frank in the context of the album. She is the ideal symbol of innocence, an angel with whom the narrator is hopelessly obsessed. And it would seem the circumstances of her death have irreparably crippled his faith in humanity. Songs like "King of Carrot Flowers" and "Oh Comely" describe such dark subject matter--domestic unrest, adultery, and general misery. The latter boasts the unsettling verse:
"Your father made fetuses
With flesh licking ladies
While you and your mother
Were asleep in the trailer park
Thunderous sparks from the dark of the stadiums"
And later in the song, it seems as if he considers Frank's senseless death to be a Pandora's box that is still causing the problems of today's world, lamenting "Will she remember me, 50 years later/I wished I could save her, in some sort of time machine."
The album starts with some fast, bassy acoustic strums and the puzzling line "When you were young you were the King of Carrot Flowers/And how you built a tower tumbling through the trees." It's a childish fantasy, a detail that plays into the theme of innocence and the corruption thereof, which is evident throughout the song. By the end of the first track, mother (an alcoholic) has stabbed father (contemplating suicide), while a loss of sexual innocence takes place elsewhere in the house. The song gives way to Part II, an impassioned declaration of love for Jesus Christ, which is hard not to interpret ironically. The slow build of rumbling guitars and drums explodes into Part III, the meaning of which is as much your guess as it is mine. It's a crazed and frenzied finale to the opening suite of songs, and perhaps the words are meant to be as chaotic as the music would lead you to believe.
The album's title track is scarred by odd noises, bowed saws and fuzzed out bass notes, yet at it's core is a love song. But this is the kind of love I'd imagine the narrator of this album believes in. I remember playing this song for a few friends on my acoustic guitar, after which a particular friend who isn't the best kind of music fan ('Forget lyrics, I'll listen to anything with a beat' she used to say) was quite impressed at what a lovely song it was. So I pulled out my laptop and played her the original version and she was disgusted by all the noises and distortion. I shrugged it off, but I realized that she, like many, didn't want to hear a love song that wasn't polished, perfect, flawless. But that's not the sort of love that exists in the narrator's world (and neither, I'd argue, does it exist in our world, but that's an argument best saved for another blog.) American pop culture has created a romantic-comedy, Disney princess view of love and, indeed, life that makes an album like Aeroplane so hard for many to digest. But I think there is much more to be gained from realism.
"Two Headed Boy" is a flurry of downstrummed acoustic chords backing a bed of lyrics ostensibly about a freak of nature, science experiments, and other such bizarre subject matter; ultimately the song humanizes the two-headed boy, slowing to a lullaby with the comforting stanza:
There is no reason to grieve
The world that you need is wrapped in gold silver sleeves
Left beneath Christmas trees in the snow
And I will take you and leave you alone
Watching spirals of white softly flow
Over your eyelids and all you did
Will wait until the point when you let go."
Almost tragically, the song segues into the instrumental "The Fool", sounding like a mid-summer death march through a shantytown. But respite comes (if only a bit late) in the form of "Holland, 1945". Yet another obvious mention of Anne Frank, the lyrics reference (among other things) a death-camp casualty, who was buried a live "a week before the guns/all came and rained on everyone." The song thunders along, driven by raging guitars, triumphant brass, and a vocal melody that soars above the rest. The song ends with the pitiful couplet "...they'd rather see their faces fill with flies/All when I'd want to keep white roses in their eyes."
"The Communist Daughter" might be the strangest track on the album, if only because of the dichotomy between the beautiful music and the utterly twisted lyrics. Of course they're up for interpretation, but the repeated metaphor "semen stains the mountaintops" would raise even a casual listener's eyebrow. And the third verse seems to describe the need for a female to masturbate in an attempt to 'prove...that she must still exist'. One would shudder at the notion that he is referring to Anne Frank, but I'd think it wasn't out of the question given the rest of the album. Several times does Mangum write lyrics that would lend to the idea of a sexual fascination with Frank (whether his own or the narrator's), including a telling line from the album's closer "Two Headed Boy Pt. II":
"And in my dreams you're alive and you're crying,
As your mouth moves in mine, soft and sweet."
--Two-Headed Boy Pt. II
The epic "Oh Comely" is as dark and sinister as this album gets. Mangum's delivery is stern and foreboding, and the lyrics complement that sentiment. Cryptic as always, the words seem to describe a young girl who is raised into a unsavory adolescence that perhaps resulted in rape or abortion. It's hard to tell from the lyrics. One fascinating interpretation is that the first part of the song (near the end it changes pace and melody a bit) is sung from the perspective of God, Jesus, or even the devil. The chorus, "Say what you want to say, hang for your hollow ways/Moving your mouth to pull out all your miracles aimed for me" could plausibly suggest the narrator is some sort of divine being or savior. One thread of the song that I find interesting is the mention of enemies. "Know who your enemies are" is the conclusion of the first portion of the song. Certainly an interesting message, especially if the song is meant to come from the devil's lips.
The album's finest moment is "Ghost", a song that features an absolutely brilliant build, and the most attractive melody line on the album. The drums fight to remain dormant, bursting through in powerful rolls until the final verse, when they finally boil over into a steady gallop; the song codas with an instrumental flourish, repeating the melody line in a proud choir of sound. The lyrics refer to two different 'ghosts': The one being Anne Frank, and the other being that of a New York City suicidal, both of which, the narrator claims "will live for ever, all goes on and on and on and on". Several times throughout the album, Mangum refers to either the afterlife, or some continuation of life. Perhaps it's his only true faith that remains.
The untitled solo track that follows is a maniacal celebration, the fullest song on the album, a cry to the heavens that resolves nothing but somehow makes sense of everything prior. It's like a musical affirmation of everything that was wrong up to that point, a devilish reminder than even an air raid provides a fireworks display.
Some low drones usher in the tender album closer, "Two Headed Boy Part II". Mangum strums his guitar behind desperate vocals, singing beautiful and heartwrenching words to several different parties. The first verse is open for interpretation--perhaps lines directed to Anne Frank's father. The second verse, however, could be for Frank herself. A bit of backstory is necessary; apparently the 'brother' that is referenced several times throughout the album was a friend of Mangum's who passed away. He finds comfort in the idea of his deceased friend loving Anne in the afterlife, something Mangum cannot do in his earthly confines:
"Blister please, with those wings in your spine.
Love to be with a brother of mine.
How he'd love to find your tongue in his teeth,
In a struggle to find secret songs that you keep,
Wrapped in boxes so tight, sounding only at night as you sleep."
--Two-Headed Boy, Pt. II
The album ends with the reemergence of the Two-Headed Boy, with Mangum soothing the boy's nerves, telling him that 'she' (presumably Frank) will be "all (he) could need." The curious line "She will feed you...radio wires" might be a reference to the line in the first "Two-Headed Boy", "creating a radio play just for two." Perhaps she is the second party in the equation.
The album ends with the solemn plea, "But don't hate her when she gets up to leave." Perhaps a warning that there is no final comfort in life. There seems to be a continuing theme that the afterlife is the only ideal, and perhaps that's not even a definite. But in a world full of so many people who'd "rather see their faces fill with flies," convincing oneself that the afterlife is the ultimate reward is the one truth that can make life worth living.