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Record Reappraisal: Neutral Milk Hotel – In The Aeroplane Over The Sea

20 years ago Neutral Milk Hotel released one of the most important albums in underground music, but does it still hold up today?

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A lot of albums that are labelled with the term ‘classic’ tend to be artists who have found considerable success. Acts like The Beatles, Radiohead, and Pink Floyd have found much praise with their works and have been in the limelight as a result.

But if you go look into more underground scenes on places like Reddit /mu/, you’ll keep seeing one album come up time and time again. The album? In The Aeroplane Over The Sea by Neutral Milk Hotel.

The obsession with the album can seem cultish at first. It won’t take you long before you start seeing people quote the lyrics from the album, or an argument if it’s a potato or drum on the cover. On the outside, it can seem quite bizarre and brings with it some intrigue. What is it about this album that makes people act this way?

On initial inspection, it would just seem that it is a simple folk album. The opening track ‘The King of Carrot Flowers pt1’ is a relatively straightforward song — it is just Jeff Mangum singing while strumming chords on a guitar. Despite the simplicity, there is something quite captivating about it. But it isn’t long before ‘The King of Carrot Flowers’ — parts 2 and 3 — start to turn everything on its head. Fuzzy punching guitars, horns, and more are thrown into the mix as the album starts to open its doors.

While it is a folk record at its core, it would be a disservice to label the songwriting as simple. A diverse array of instruments are all composed together in a perfect mixture. Nothing feels out of place or forced and the record knows when to tone it down or go all out. Songs like ‘In The Aeroplane Over The Sea’ demonstrate the ability to do both with a rather bare-bones guitar is slowly layered with soaring horns.

Even with this, it still paces itself incredibly well with much variety on show. ‘Holland 1945’ is a very driven song with blaring guitars, before cooling down with the ‘Communist Daughter’ with its noisy yet subtle atmosphere, they then strip it all down in ‘Oh Comely’ where Jeff lays it all bare. It experiments with different flavours constantly and helps the album stay fresh even to this day.

Lyrically, the album shines. Jeff paints bizarre intricate worlds with very vivid imagery. They often seem nonsensical but they rarely feel off-putting or distracting. It’s part of the enigma that is this album. He manages to expertly weave an array of narratives from love & loss, to rebellion. Fans have made theories about underlying themes of the album that are still discussed to this day. It just goes to show the staying power this album has.

The final moments of In The Aeroplane sees Jeff put down his guitar and walk out, and while it is a fitting end for the album, it mirrors what actually happened. After the success of the album the band had received considerable offers and while other members were keen to capitalise, Jeff wasn’t. He was tired of performing and explaining his art so he just quit. They did reform a few years ago for a series of shows, and there were rumours of a new album last year, but that has since faded away.

In The Aeroplane still holds up 20 years later, and it’s clear to see why it’s still held in high regard in underground music. It still manages to dazzle and surprise after all this time and its influence is still felt. If for some reason you have not listened to it then, it’s a must. There aren’t many albums like it.