‘Semen stains the mountaintops’: Looking back on Neutral Milk Hotel’s ‘In the Aeroplane Over the Sea’ 20 years later
There’s a lot that could be said about “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea.” For some, Neutral Milk Hotel’s folky sophomore record is a work of genius. Since its release in 1998, the album has developed a strong cult following, evident by steady record sales and a large amount of appreciation found online.
But for others, it’s less than pleasurable, just plain weird or even obnoxious. With its polarizing nature, the album has reached an iconic and almost mythic status. Feb. 10 marks the 20th anniversary of its release. Two decades later, “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea” remains an undoubted indie-rock classic, and arguably, a masterpiece.
In the late ‘90s, Neutral Milk Hotel’s frontman and principal songwriter, Jeff Mangum, moved from Athens, Georgia, to Denver, Colorado. His goal was to begin work on a follow up to his band’s 1996 album “On Avery Island.” During the late summer months of 1997, Mangum recorded “Aeroplane” with producer Robert Schneider at the now-defunct Pet Sounds Studio. At the time, the band’s label, Merge Records, estimated the album would sell around 5,500 CDs and 1,600 vinyl copies.
“Aeroplane” was an oddity from the start. Its repeated references to Anne Frank make it a concept album — sort of. Mangum reportedly read “The Diary of a Young Girl,” before recording, and he cried for three days straight. The inspiration pops up in the lyrics. For example, the track “Holland, 1945” contains these lines: “But then they buried her alive / One evening, 1945 / With just her sister by her side / Only weeks before the guns / All came and rained on everyone.”
Then there are the other completely enigmatic phrases such as the repeated “semen stains the mountaintops,” heard on the track “Communist Daughter,” or the impassioned “I love you, Jesus Christ,” which Mangum manages to belt out a good number of times on “King of Carrot Flowers Pts. 2 & 3.” These lines and others have certainly helped to carve out the album’s cult status. But while they are easy to make fun of, the nonsensical nature of Mangum’s lyrics often come with their own beautiful imagery. It’s hard not to appreciate lines such as these: “And through the music he sweetly displays / Silver speakers that sparkle all day/ Made for his lover who’s floating and choking with her hands across her face.”
Pair that with the album’s near-perfect production. During the quiet moments, Mangum’s acoustic guitar sounds like it’s right there in the room with his listeners. But when things become loud — as they do on the punky “Holland, 1945” — the recording is amplified to the point of distortion, giving the record a brilliant lo-fi charm, somehow without the usual abrasiveness that comes along with that.
When pushed past Mangum’s humble acoustic, “Aeroplane” takes full advantage of some obscure instrumentation. Besides the majestic, and sometimes dirge-like use of horns, the record incorporates everything from a singing saw to a shortwave radio, giving it an almost otherworldly or even fantastical feel. The use of bagpipes on the album’s untitled, instrumental track also makes for an uplifting high point.
Given its unique nature, “Aeroplane” has inspired much talk and devotion over the years, and that hasn’t come without a few negative associations. For one, the album has come to be linked with a contemporary hipster subculture — “hipster” being an embarrassing word to even type in 2018 — as the album’s perceived obscurity often lends itself to annoying, pretentious, and often entry-level record collectors. The album has earned itself some references in a John Green novel as well, which surely can inspire some eyerolls. And then there’s the reputation and apparent meme-status “Aeroplane” still holds on websites like 4chan — which a number of politically correct people would consider one of the worst parts of the internet.
“In the Aeroplane Over the Sea” is best enjoyed without all the noise that surrounds it. The album remains Jeff Mangum’s opus, as well as the last full-length record Neutral Milk Hotel ever released. It’s 20 years old, yet it still feels timeless, and completely unlike anything else. As the album finishes — Mangum audibly sets down his guitar at the end of “Two-Headed Boy, Pt. 2” — the listener is left with something magical to think back on.