“In the Aeroplane Over the Sea,” a Strange and Beautiful Piece of Music, Turns 20
The first job I ever had, as a 17-year-old high school senior in 2004, was as a delivery guy for a Mexican restaurant in Montclair, New Jersey, in the suburbs of Manhattan. If we’re judging solely by enjoyment of the work itself — it was obviously not much for pay or prospects — it remains, to this day, one of the best jobs I’ve ever had. Sure, there was the occasional stress and frustration of trying to find a house number on a busy street at night in the rain, or of memorizing a lengthy set of directions in the age before the advent of Google maps in every car. But mostly, the job consisted simply of driving around town in my parents’ red minivan and listening to music. I was alone, I was bored, and I was hormonal, and so I would belt along to every song that came on, really put my back into it, hitting every note like I was competing on some indie rock version of American Idol. Veins, I imagine, were bulging out of my forehead. Built to Spill, the Shins, 311 (fight me), the Mars Volta — during a rough breakup, “Room On Fire” by the Strokes became the first album with which I felt a deep personal identification, as if Julian Casablancas was commiserating with me, directly, through the lyrics and his often mournful crooning.
Among the albums in my rotation that spring was “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea,” the second and final LP by Neutral Milk Hotel and the notoriously reclusive and mysterious Jeff Mangum. More than any of the other albums I went hoarse screaming along to in the solitude of the van, this one really asked a lot of both my vocal cords and lung capacity. Mangum not only had a tremendous range, but was able to sustain notes for ungodly lengths of time, and build long melodies around a single breath. And he projected, unlike some of his indie colleagues who went the whispery route pioneered by Elliot Smith.
“In the Aeroplane Over the Sea” was released 20 years ago this year. It came out in 1998, four or five years before a vaguely gothy girl in my class first recommended it to me in some conversation over AOL Instant Messenger. It’s one of my favorite albums of all time. Mangum’s lyrics are cryptic and, at least at a glance, nonsensical. They conjure beautiful images of soft and sweet musical notes bending and reaching above the trees, and frightening (though nicely alliterative) ones of fathers making fetuses with flesh-licking ladies. They’re often uncomfortable to listen to and to sing, as when Mangum segues from a girl standing on water immediately to an image of semen-stained mountaintops.
But with these lyrics he builds some of the most beautiful and pleasing melodies. And by “pleasing” I don’t simply mean they’re catchy. Mangum betrays a deeply intuitive sensibility for songwriting, for what makes melodic sense. In “Two-Headed Boy” the melody wanders idly down, then idly back up, then stops, having set itself up perfectly for the soaring climax of the pre-chorus. The core of “Ghost” consists of a four-line progression in which he establishes the melody, then repeats it with a slight but ear-catching variation at the end, then again in a higher key and with a bit more intensity, then back to where he began. They all resolve so perfectly; they just make sense.
The foundation of the musical accompaniment — Mangum’s acoustic guitar — is as simple as can be. Every song consists of three to five of the first chords you learn when you take up the guitar, with hardly a hammer-on or solo or arpeggio to speak of. But he ornaments his progressions with visionary instrumentation. There are accordions, bugles, saws, some strange organ (I think?), and other devices I’d never heard of until I read the credits in the liner notes of the CD jacket (What in God’s name makes that fascinating honking noise right before the drum crash in “King of Carrot Flowers Parts II and III?”). This cast of characters serves to take you all sorts of different places, from a forest festival in some bygone century to the depths of your own comatose subconscious. The imagery in those liner notes includes a phonograph, a track listing written in archaic typeface, black-and-white drawings. All of it — the instrumentation and the album decoration — is very mid-20th Century Europe, and this sensibility would later be aped by the likes of Arcade Fire and other bands who came along after Mangum dropped off the map.
“In the Aeroplane Over the Sea” is the kind of album opens with a Pavlovian trigger for those who know it well: As soon as that low F chord hits at the opening of the album, I salivate over the half hour I have ahead of me. At the other end, the album closes with the terribly mournful “Two-Headed Boy Part 2”, which ends with a reprisal of the melody from “…Part 1” 7 tracks earlier. After Mangum delivers his last line, “But don’t hate her when she gets up to leave,” the chord rings out and the microphones keep recording, and the listener can hear him set his guitar down in the studio and, well, get up to leave. For years after that, no one really knew much about his activities except that he had co-founded a recording company, as well as something about him retreating into nature to record bird sounds. Between his semi-reclusiveness, his bizarre lyrics, and his apparent decision to stop making music shortly after the release of what would come to be known as his magnum opus, he had earned a reputation as one of indie rock’s weirdest weirdos.
Then, in 2011, Mangum turned up, suddenly, at the Occupy Wall Street protest in downtown Manhattan. I watched on Pitchfork as he stood in the middle of a group of onlookers with his acoustic guitar and played “Ghost.” It was surreal and thrilling: He was alive, he was back in civilization, he was playing those songs — those songs still existed. The sound — of his guitar, of his voice and those of the few dozen fans singing along, probably even more stunned than I was by what they were seeing — was picked up by the shoddy microphone of an early iPhone. The following year, it was announced that he would be doing a solo acoustic tour that would pass through the Fox Theater in Oakland California; I had the chance to see my favorite songwriter, who for years I thought I’d never be able to see, at my favorite music venue in the Bay Area. I was an English language teacher at that time, my days behind the wheel of the van a distant memory, and I threw a quiz at my students so I could wait at my laptop undisturbed until the tickets went on sale at 10AM. The minute they did, I snatched up a pair, and my buddy and I went to see Jeff freakin’ Mangum, live in concert.
It was incredible. His voice was just as powerful as it had been in ’98, and it filled the entire theater. He looked and played great; he hadn’t let himself go physically, and he didn’t half-ass his songs. And two years later, I saw him at the Fox again — this time with the whole band. Somehow, though, I could tell it wouldn’t be a full-fledged resurgence of his career, a true emergence from retirement. He played all the songs we loved, and nothing else. By all indications, over the course of more than a decade, he hadn’t written a single new song.
I still get into new music, but I’m pretty sure I’m past the age at which I could discover an artist for the first time and have that artist become a hero. And I realized recently that, even though I listen to music almost every day, I always do it as a soundtrack to something else: cooking, running, riding the bus. I never listen to music as its own activity anymore, never simply lie on my back on my bed and take in an album the way I used to. I’m getting older and more cynical, I guess. But I’ll never be too cynical to wholeheartedly champion “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea,” as bizarre and artsy and campy as it can be. In 2038 and 2058, I’ll still be playing “Two Headed Boy” on my acoustic guitar — I’ll just be struggling a bit more than usual to hit the high notes.